THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 58
“Not even enough to put us into a stable orbit, much less take us back to the colony,” Hadata said, her aureole drooping.
“I have piloting experience,” Jihan said. “Let me try.” She and Hadata traded stations and then she used her Starsifter skills, one-handedly plotting the course of every bit of flotsam out there, the newcomer, and —
She blinked. “Something fairly large has assumed low solar orbit,” she said, doing the calculations again just to be certain. “Yes, there!”
Hadata came back. “I — see,” she said, “but it is part of an Ekhat ship. What possible good could it do us?”
“If we shut down all extraneous equipment, I think we will have enough power for minor maneuvering,” Jihan said. “We can rendezvous with that fragment and avoid being drawn into the sun.”
“Rendezvous with an Ekhat?” Lliant lurched to his feet. His face was rapidly darkening with bruises and his lip was split, giving his words a slur. “Are you insane?”
“Would you rather burn up?” Jihan said. Her arm throbbed. There must be emergency medical supplies on-board. She needed to apply a pain-dampener so that she could think clearly. “If we hide there, we can summon one of our ships,” Jihan said. “Perhaps the Starsifters or another Starwarders craft.”
“You would bring them to the Ekhat too?” Lliant snorted. “They should have thrown your body off a cliff that day you broke sensho in the Hall of Decision! You do not deserve to live among civilized people!”
“Silence!” Hadata said. Her head hung as she visibly searched for the correct words to fit the situation. “Jihan is an Eldest and also has Starsifter experience. She has more right than you to determine policy.”
“She will kill us all!”
“We are already dead,” Hadata said. “It only remains to take our last few breaths.”
Giving up again! Anger helped Jihan focus. “Lliant, stop babbling about dying and find the medical supplies. I have broken my arm.” She thought through the rising haze of pain. “Hadata, contact the Starwarders and Starsifters and see if any ships can come after us.” She sighed. “I will do my best to conserve what power we have left for maneuvering.”
Lliant glared at her, not moving.
“And stop pouting,” she said, awkwardly using her undamaged hand to shut down unneeded systems, one after the other. Most of the lighting was unnecessary, she thought, most of the heat. They were left with a few amber emergency lights that turned their silver skin sallow. “After all, it is entirely possible that you may get your wish. Despite our best efforts, we very well may not survive.”
After the fighting was over, Caitlin and Wrot tracked down Tully in one of the sick bays.
“I just came in here to check on my people,” Tully said, as a doctor insisted upon him lingering long enough to get his head wound cleaned. “My skull’s tough and I have orders to carry out.”
Caitlin wrinkled her nose. The bustling med center reeked of antiseptics and blood. The worst of the injured had already been whisked away for surgery, though, and orderlies were cleaning up. Most of the rest of the patients in here now suffered from only minor wounds.
Wrot leaned in and examined the gash in the back of Tully’s scalp for himself. “That is not too bad,” the old Jao said noncommittally.
Tully looked a bit wan, Caitlin thought, but with typical Resistance stubbornness, he’d stay on his feet until he keeled over.
The doctor shook his head as he laid aside bloodied cotton. Caitlin knew his name — Michael Bast — but hadn’t ever really spoken to him. He was young and gawky as though he hadn’t quite got his full growth. His face had gone quite pale after the events of the last few hours and he was apparently compensating for his nerves with an overly serious demeanor. Caitlin guessed, due to his youth, this was most likely his first time in combat.
“After a crack on the head like that,” Bast said, glancing up at Wrot, “I would advise rest for at least twenty-four hours.”
“No can do, Mike,” Tully said, flinching as a bandage was applied. “Baker Company has an assignment.” He smiled crookedly at Caitlin and Wrot. “Got to make ourselves of use and all that.”
“Not if you’ve been knocked senseless!” she said, then she couldn’t help her curiosity. “What kind of assignment?”
“Going to take assault craft and check out a bit of Ekhat junk that’s established low orbit around this star,” he said, sliding off the exam table. His blue jinau uniform was splotched with blood. He tugged to straighten his shirt. “Probably nothing, but then again unmanned wreckage should just plunge into the sun, so maybe Dannet is onto something.” He shook his head. “After beating the odds like she just did, I can’t deny that her instincts are all in the right place.”
“You think some of them are still alive?” Caitlin said, overwhelmed with the possibilities. “My god, why doesn’t Lexington just blast them from here?”
“Survivors will most likely be helpless,” Wrot said thoughtfully. “This is an opportunity to take prisoners, which comes very rarely when fighting the Ekhat.”
She remembered the only time she’d ever seen Ekhat in person back in Terra’s solar system and shuddered. She’d had nightmares about that grisly encounter for months. “But when we parleyed with the Interdict, the two speakers killed themselves afterward,” she said, “because they couldn’t endure the taint of simply having talked to us — and that meeting was of their own accord.”
“You must take great care to prevent that,” Wrot said to Tully, as the human struggled to get his arm through his jacket sleeve. “As Caitlin points out, they will wish only to die.”
She took the jacket and held it for him. From the way he winced, he must be bruised from end to end. “Take me along!” she blurted. All three turned to stare at her, the doctor, Wrot, and Tully. “I’m trained as a diplomat. Let me try to talk them down from committing suicide.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Tully said, shaking his head. “Ed would skin me alive.”
“And me as well,” Wrot said. “At any rate, you are not here to speak to Ekhat. You and I both know that Ronz had a different mission in mind for you. It’s necessary, more than ever at this point, for you to remain onboard and hold yourself ready, should the need for your skills arise.”
He meant if they encountered the Lleix, but so far there had been no sign of them. Even if they had been here, the sight of five blasted Ekhat ships had probably sent them running for cover back out into the galaxy.
Caitlin sighed, able to tell from the stubborn angle of Wrot’s head that she couldn’t argue her way out of this. The old Jao might have gone “native” to a startling degree in the twenty-odd years he’d made his home on Earth, but at his core, he was solidly Jao. He had oudh in this situation, which meant she would stay on the Lexington and make herself of use any way he saw fit. She just hoped her opportunity came before she went stark raving bonkers from inactivity.
The great ship had taken damage, Dannet thought, but fortunately not too much. She prowled from station to station on the Command Deck, reading the stats for herself, craving unfiltered data. Most of the damage, they could repair themselves. The mission, whatever it was, could continue, though no one had seen fit to trust her with its true nature.
That bit of flotsam in low orbit, though, that was intriguing. It would be interesting to see what Baker Company found and what Wrot krinnu ava Terra would order her to do about it, when they reported back.
She still felt some resentment that he had oudh and she did not. For all their fine words, Terra Taif had obviously not forgotten Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo’s deeds. It would be a very long time, if ever, until her Narvo origins were forgiven and she was judged upon her own merits.
But… This had been a magnificent battle. And the ship which fought and won that battle — this odd, misshapen and hybrid vessel that she had initially thought was both grotesque and dubious — had proven itself. Her ship, now. Neither she nor anyone else would doubt that, any longer. Her place in Terra Taif might be questionable, but not her place in the Lexington.
She had deduced Wrot was seeking contact with the species that had manned the other ship in the previous battle, but perhaps that vessel had only been passing through this system. She saw no evidence of them now, though, whoever they had been.
At any rate, diagnostics had detected a single habitable planet in this system. Nebula gases reflected all attempts to scan the surface from this distance, but after they had finished the tiresome mopping up from the battle, they would be at leisure to take a closer look. Perhaps that would yield some useful information.
Their trajectory was still not promising, Jihan told herself, but with precise firings of maneuvering thrusters, they might — just — intercept the wrecked piece of the Ekhat ship with its own orbit. So far, all efforts to contact one of their other Lleix vessels had failed. The hit they’d taken must have damaged the Starwarder transmitter. They were on their own.
Lliant by turns sulked in his seat, then stalked about the rapidly cooling cabin and harangued her. The surviving Starwarder, Hidata, simply hunched over the screens in a daze, punching up useless vectors, until Jihan finally shut the systems down to save the ship’s precious power. What little they had might be enough, but then again it might not. They could not afford to waste any.
What they would do, should they be successful by using the Ekhat debris to keep from falling into the sun, she did not know. That bit of ship was in a stable orbit, which was very unlikely without conscious direction. Someone had lived long enough to make it happen and she had no wish to make their acquaintance.
But it seemed, if the Boh were watching, they would.