THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 57
Tully assisted where he could as the bridge crew set about restoring order. Every so often, he glanced over at Dannet’s Narvo-striped face as she directed the hunt for larger portions of the wrecked Ekhat vessels to ensure nothing had survived. Some of the Ekhat’s lasers were still firing from time to time, probably on automatic, because they were even targeting other Ekhat debris.
Tully figured most of the pieces would wind up in the sun in fairly short order, but he admired Dannet’s ferocity. It was good to see Jao bloody-mindedness turned upon their common enemy. Humans knew only too well how focused they could be from the conquest of Terra.
He watched the Terra-Captain covertly as she steered the bridge crew back on task, stern and uncompromising and deadly efficient. By all that was holy, she had outmaneuvered and outfought five fricking Ekhat ships! She was amazing. The Bond had certainly known what it was doing when it turned command of this ship over to her.
Despite being Narvo. Or… more likely, because she was Narvo. Uncomfortably, Tully finally admitted to himself a truth which he knew was accepted by all Jao. Narvo was one of the two greatest of the Jao kochan, along with Pluthrak. But where Pluthrak’s stature derived from their subtlety and multiple associations, Narvo’s came from something much simpler. They were the great warrior kochan of the Jao. In purely military terms, by far the mightiest.
Professor Kinsey had once commented that insofar as the Jao kochans found a parallel with the caste system of the Hindus, Pluthrak was the equivalent of the Brahmin priests and Narvo of the kshatriya warriors. The analogy hadn’t meant much to Tully at the time, but he could see the logic now.
Dannet’s notice lighted upon him. “Major Tully,” she said, crossing the deck to stand by him. Her eyes blazed down at him, flickering with green, and her ears were positively dancing. Something was going on inside that alien skull.
“Yes, Terra-Captain?” The knot on his head ached dully.
“You were stationed in Spine C. So now your unit has no function.” Her ears kept flicking to odd angles, lowering abruptly, then rising again, as though her thoughts were racing.
“Not while we are in space, Terra-Captain.” He kept his body very straight, trying for simple neutrality. “We took some injuries and at least two fatalities that I know of, but I can assign personnel to fill in wherever you have a need.”
The Jao’s eyes had gone to almost pure green now. He suspected her of finding something in the situation amusing, and unfortunately, things that amused the Jao could give a human nightmares. “Though heavily damaged by our fire, one of the Ekhat ships survived,” she said abruptly, “or at least a substantial portion of it. That section has achieved a low orbit around the star and its shields appear to still be functioning, suggesting that it may yet be manned. Load the functional portion of Baker Company into assault craft and investigate whether any of the crew live.”
Tully’s throat went dry. “And — what is our mission? Take the survivors prisoner or finish the job?” He devoutly hoped for the latter. He’d met a pair of Ekhat face to face once. They were barking insane.
“It has been hundreds of years, as humans term such things, since the Jao captured an Ekhat ship. Even longer since we secured live Ekhat.” She settled into a Yaut-like stance, extreme-sternness, perhaps, or admonition-to-duty. “If any Ekhat survive, they will attempt to terminate themselves rather than face captivity. It is your responsibility to prevent this.” Her gaze turned to the screen. “Interrogating them could provide valuable information.”
Question an Ekhat? He shuddered as he tried to visualize the process. “Jesus!” he muttered involuntarily, running fingers back over his aching head. Even his hair hurt.
“Are you requesting support from one of your mythical talismans?” Dannet said. “I assure you that this Jesus, whatever it is, cannot assist you in this matter.”
“No, Terra-Captain, indeed you are right,” Tully said, his mind whirling.
“You have your orders,” Dannet said, and turned away.
He saluted her back, trying to preserve the shreds of his dignity, then went to round up the rest of his unit. They didn’t know it yet, but they had a lot to get done.
The Starwarders’ ship observed the end of the great battle as closely as the crew dared. The notion that the Lleix might survive this latest Ekhat incursion was heady. “All five destroyed?” Lliant said, his aureole fluttering with amazement. “That is not possible!”
“Analyze the readings then yourself,” Jihan said. The newcomers’ victory was improbable, true, but Lliant’s continued incredulity angered her with its foolishness. She reminded herself that an Eldest, however short or newly named, should never give way to sharp words.
“Who — are — they?” Hadata whispered from her pilot’s seat. “Where did they come from?”
“And what do they want?” Segga, one of the other Starwarders said from his station at the back. The other two stayed out of the discussion, sullenly doing exactly what was required and nothing more. It was clear they had no wish to be here.
What, indeed, did the newcomers want? wondered Jihan. Her nerves crawled with uncertainty. Were they as vicious as the Ekhat or perhaps even worse? They certainly fought with an unparalleled fierceness, suggesting that if the Lleix resisted them, their people could expect no quarter either.
During the battle, the huge ship had lost a section, one of its strange flat extrusions that seemed to carry weapons. The piece drifted away from the battle and would eventually be pulled in by the star’s gravity. “If we can get closer to the debris field,” she said, studying the data, “I can take some readings, then beam the information back to the Starsifters. They might be able to tell us more. Perhaps there is some information on this species buried in the ancient records.”
“You are not going to try to convince us that these creatures are Jao?” Lliant’s voice carried an implicit sneer.
“No,” Jihan said, spreading her fingers across the console and gazing steadily at them. He would not provoke her! “Whoever they are, they do not resemble what I have learned of the Jao.” All those days spent learning the rudiments of the Jao tongue had been wasted, she thought regretfully. They would have to start all over with this species.
“Maneuvering in that closely will be precarious,” Hadata said from her pilot’s seat. “I am reading a great deal of debris, much more from the Ekhat than the newcomer.”
Jihan rose and crossed to Hadata, leaning over the other’s shoulder to point at her screen. “Match course with that huge piece there,” she said.
“It is passing very close to the Ekhat debris field,” Hadata said, nevertheless making the suggested course corrections. “There are still a number of large sections. I am not certain how close we can safely get.”
“Will we be in danger of collision?” Lliant asked.
“I will endeavor to prevent that,” Hadata said.
Jihan studied the spinning Ekhat flotsam. Perhaps they should also try to take some readings from —
A red energy signature flared as a laser beam speared the flat section, vaporizing a fair amount. Hadata’s startled black gaze turned to Jihan. Her hands flew to the controls, plotting a new vector away. “They are still alive!”
“They — cannot be,” Jihan said, her mind whirling. That section has lost hull integrity. You can see as it spins — it is open to space.”
The energy signature flashed again, this time incinerating a broken girder from one of the Ekhat wrecks, hardly a threat by anyone’s standards.
“It must be an automatic mechanism,” Lliant said, “firing at anything within range. Ekhatlore has records of such.”
“That could include us!” Hadata said, her hands flying over the controls.
Jihan headed back for her station, but the little ship jolted violently. She stumbled and then fell full-length to the deck, her head ringing, aureole collapsed around her face. Her arm, which had taken the brunt of her weight as she fell, throbbed.
“We have been hit!” Hadata cried.
The cabin filled with the unpleasant reek of burnt electronic components. Someone in the back section was crying out hoarsely, one of the other Starwarders, Jihan thought groggily. She had not gotten the female’s name.
“T-take us back to Valeron!” Lliant said, coughing and waving away smoke. His face had smashed into his control panel and blood trickled down his cheek. He lurched out of his seat and went to check on the two back stations. One, a very short male, obviously quite young, sprawled on the floor, his head twisted at a bad angle. The other was still murmuring in pain, then her voice trailed off and she was ominously silent.
Lliant returned, wiping his hands on his robes. “They are both dead,” he said, his face scrunched in disbelief.
Jihan pulled herself up into her chair with her remaining good hand, cradling the damaged arm against her chest, the taste of blood in her mouth. Her vision blurred, came back into focus. On her screen, the Ekhat energy signature flashed again, then the newcomers’ ship answered by firing upon the spinning fragment, vaporizing it. Her pulse pounded as she feared it would then also fire upon them, but they were masked by the bulk of the flat extrusion. The vessel cruised on, massive, black, and deadly, evidently seeking out the last of the surviving Ekhat, putting an end to even the possibility any still lived.
“We have taken damage to our engines,” Hadata said, punching in command after useless command. She turned in her seat to look at the rest of the crew. “This course is headed for the sun.”
Lliant lurched to his feet, elegant draping forgotten. “Pull us out!”
“We do not have enough remaining power,” Hadata said.
“Then it is the Last-of-Days,” Lliant said, “at least for us.”
Why did everyone always just give up? Jihan thought crossly. Her breath hissed as she tried to find a comfortable position for her injured arm. “Then we do have some power?” she said, gritting her teeth against the stabbing pain.