THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 53
“It has not come to that yet,” Caitlin said. Dannet saw how carefully the little human female was now controlling her lines and angles. She had gone blatantly neutral as only the Bond could manage. “Send more crew members to get them out of there.”
“I have already dispatched as many as I can spare,” Dannet said, settling into her command chair. She itched to correct the feisty human, but the governor of Terra was sure to disapprove. As this one was a member of his personal service, it should fall to him to discipline poor behavior — unless Mrs. Kralik made herself insufferable before all here on the Command Deck.
“This ship holds thousands,” Caitlin said, her body still classically neutral. “Surely, you can –”
“Are you challenging my leadership?” Dannet’s voice was soft, yet pitched for all on the command deck to hear. She assumed the lines of polite-inquiry. It was crucial that she not leave herself open to the slightest criticism later, which would inevitably reflect back upon Narvo. Say it, she thought, though she kept any indication of her thoughts from her posture. Say the unforgivable.
“Decks E and G firing,” the munitions officer said, as though his captain were not totally occupied with Caitlin.
“Your leadership is beyond question, Terra-Captain,” Caitlin said. “This is, of course, your command and I will now leave you to it as I should have done when the engagement started. Please excuse me.” She strode toward the lift, taking the gaze of most of the command crew with her.
The opportunity slipped away from Dannet like a wily sea creature diving into sunless depths. She had been so close to provoking the human into an unwise statement, but Caitlin had dodged the trap. And neither had she maneuvered the human into association, as Pluthrak was always so cleverly doing.
Dannet forced herself to seize the possibility provided. “Mrs. Kralik.”
Caitlin paused, and looked over her shoulder. “Yes, Terra-Captain?”
“I have no desire to see unnecessary casualties. Please make yourself of use and go to Spine C. Warn Tully that we will jettison the spine if he cannot bring hull integrity back up to ninety percent.”
Caitlin nodded. “Thank you. How much time does he have? He will need a human time frame, you understand.”
More irritation. Dannet knew that humans insisted on breaking the flow of time into arbitrary and meaningless fragments. But she did not yet have the needed experience to provide an approximate translation of her own time sense.
One of her human subordinates was standing nearby, and came over. That was Melonie Brown, the female officer who attended to many of the ship’s mechanical needs. She had some formal human title — Engineering Officer, if Dannet remembered correctly.
“Tell him he has twenty minutes, Ship-Captain,” she said softly. “We have that much time before re-engaging the enemy. If Tully can’t re-establish ninety percent hull integrity within ten minutes, he probably can’t do it at all. And that gives him ten more minutes to evacuate the spine, which should be enough.”
The specific units meant nothing to Dannet, but she had already discovered that Brown was capable and had an excellent knowledge of the Lexington’s design and structure. She would accept her judgment in the matter.
She even remembered to do the little head jerk — they called it a “nod” — that served humans as a crude equivalent of either command-to-make-it-so or full-agreement. Or perhaps both. As with all human gestures, it was maddeningly vague. “Tell Tully what she says, Mrs. Kralik,” Dannet commanded. “In twenty minutes, if hull integrity has not been restored to ninety percent or better, I will jettison the spine.”
Caitlin jerked her head, and left the deck.
Interesting. Apparently the “nod” gesture was also the equivalent of obedient-acknowledgment. Despite her Narvo preference for straight-forwardness, Dannet was pleased with herself. She didn’t think even a Pluthrak could have elicited more association out of such an unpromising situation.
And there would be more such situations, she thought, turning back to the projection tank. This was going to be a lengthy voyage. Her sense of flow predicted when they would likely return to Terra, as conditions now stood, and that time was not what a human would term “soon.” Before it was over, if all went well, much of the damage caused by Oppuk would have been repaired.
It was unfortunate, of course, that Dannet would never have the pleasure of receiving formal recognition of her work from Narvo. But that was an inevitable part of the work itself. As she had been fairly warned. Far more important was that she make herself of use. To Narvo, to the Jao — and even, she was now coming to accept, the humans who were part of her adopted taif.
Jihan saw that the largest alien ship had fallen back into the sun. Perhaps it was running away from the Ekhat’s superior force, using framepoint travel, or perhaps it was even immolating itself. The Ekhat were known to be casually suicidal, after all. Who could say how unknown alien species might behave?
Either way, five Ekhat vessels remained in the system and the Lleix were facing them unaided. The realization terrified her even more, and she had not thought that possible.
Then, two of the ungainly ships of the Ekhat devils followed the huge vessel into the sun. Lliant and Hadata looked at one another blankly. Time stretched out as no one on the tiny Starwarder ship spoke. Even the recycled air lay heavy in Jihan’s lungs. “What — does this mean?” she asked finally into the silence, thinking that the Starwarders or Ekhatlore would understand this turn of events far better than a former Starsifter.
Lliant’s black eyes turned to her. “They must be pursuing the intruder back to its home.”
So the great devils could visit death and destruction on yet another species. Whoever they were, it might be their Last-of-Days also.
Hidata piloted the little ship closer, the crew observing, which was all they could do. This vessel carried no weapons heavy enough to be effective against the Ekhat. Three of the devils’ vessels remained in low orbit above the sun, their angular shape in stark black outline against the star’s brilliance, plainly visible.
Then, a huge blob of fiery plasma emerged from the sun, rising slowly. It would be one or both of the Ekhat returning, Jihan thought, back from their grisly errand. It had taken very little time.
But the shape was so massive, so round, unlike the Ekhat design, spindly, angular, and long. “It is the intruder,” she said, hardly able to breathe.
“That cannot be,” Lliant said, his fingers flying over the controls, taking readings, evaluating what little data came back.
The immense vessel soared toward the remaining three Ekhat, still enveloped in the deadly plasma. “They mean to use the plasma as a weapon, I think,” Jihan said. “They will engage them.” She tight-beamed the bizarre sight back to Valeron for the Starsifters, Starwarders, and Ekhatlore. Jaolore had not yet set up a receiver for such data. As with so many other things since Jaolore’s rushed formation, there had been no opportunity.
“What happened to the two Ekhat ships that were pursuing it?” Lliant said.
Who was manning that ship? Jihan kept asking herself. It resembled nothing that belonged to the Jao. Were these new creatures as bad as the Ekhat, or perhaps even worse? It was entirely possible.
The huge vessel was firing again, no doubt from those strange flat extrusions which were not visible at the moment. The closest Ekhat ship abruptly changed vector — as it was hit, perhaps — then returned laser fire which seemed to have no effect.
Three against one. Massive as their ship was, the newcomers could not possibly prevail against such numbers, and the other two ships could return at any moment. The Ekhat would finish them off and then turn their attention back to Valeron.
The others fell silent again, sitting rigid before their screens in grief and shock. However this battle turned out, the Lleix and their way of life were already dead, but for the moment those on this ship were the only ones who knew it.
Down in Spine C, at Tully’s order, Mallu took charge of the work of trying to restore hull integrity. He let his timesense stretch out as he worked, so that the mad rush to attend to damage seemed almost leisurely, allowing him to detect details that might otherwise have escaped his notice. Major Tully was still struggling to open the hatch, so he did not consult the human’s judgment any more than strictly necessary.
Jalta had been stunned by the collision and was sitting propped up against a bulkhead, bleeding from a gashed shoulder. Up and down the line of great gun mounts, the human lieutenant named Miller and Senior-Tech Kaln were coordinating that work, certifying which guns could return to service and organizing dazed, but able-bodied crew into new groupings to operate them. At least two of the fourteen guns were completely out of commission. Unsalvageable, according to Kaln, by anything short of a repair dock.
Mostly, Mallu was impressed by the way the majority of the humans ignored their own injuries and helped with the repair work or aided their more badly wounded fellows. He was unaccustomed to the species, and could now see that their appearance had fooled him, at least to a degree. There was something both fragile and vaguely comical about humans, to an untutored Jao eye. He had not expected them to show such determination and resilience in the middle of a fierce battle.
The air had quickly grown stale, filled with the stink of shorted out wiring and acrid smoke, and it was very hot. All around him, the humans’ naked faces gleamed with moisture as though they had just come from swimming. A curious side effect, evidently, of their biochemistry under stress.