Chapter 22

As they approached the Ekhat wreck, Jihan was forced to divert more and more of their dwindling power supply to the shields. Solar radiation at this proximity was deadly.

Lliant was of little help, mostly just mumbling about the Ekhat, huddled in one of the chairs, his robes rucked up in a shocking fashion. Hadata had regained some of her composure, but continued to look to Jihan to direct their actions as the only Eldest on board.

The two remaining Starwarders were, as Lliant had reported, quite dead, one from a broken neck, the other from severe burns taken when the power surge had shorted out the electronics of her ship station. Jihan bullied Lliant until he stirred himself to remove their bodies to a storage area, then left him to fret.

With the application of an herbal pain-dampener, Jihan’s arm proved not to be as badly damaged as she’d feared. Muscles and ligaments seemed to be torn, but she did not believe the bones were broken after all. She now had limited use of it, which was enough for the moment.

The ship’s interior cooled rapidly with most of the power shunted to the shields and thrusters. Her bare toes curled against the numbingly chill metal underfoot. Her fingers stiffened, gone clumsy as a child’s, increasingly hard to use. She had shut off the emergency lights, so now, seated in dimness, the only light came from the instrument panels. Their shadowed faces were uniformly grim.

She took successive readings as they neared, then her aureole flared as she detected energy traces from the Ekhat derelict. The hull had been holed by the newcomers’ extraordinary weapons and could not possibly contain an atmosphere, yet electrical activity was evident. Could it be automatic, like the fragment of ship that had fired upon them? If so, they could be hastening to their deaths.

But they had no choice. Their trajectory had them headed into the sun, whatever they did with their limited resources. They had to make the best of what opportunities were given them, which admittedly, wasn’t much. At this rate of power depletion, their shields would give out before they hit the photosphere itself. They needed to protect themselves from the radiation almost as badly as they needed to escape the sun’s gravity. That derelict could shade them if they anchored on its dark side.

Sitting back, her head spinning, she turned to Hadata. “We need to secure this ship to the derelict.”

The Starwarder raised her head, black eyes shining. Her aureole did not stir. “We have magnetics.”

“Magnetics will be of no use,” Lliant said bleakly, eyes slitted almost shut. He was rocking as though in pain. “Ekhat do not employ iron alloys in their ship construction.”

“By some physical means then,” Jihan said. “What can we use?” She touched the barely responsive Hadata. “Think!”

“We have — grapples,” Hadata finally said. “But they cannot be deployed from inside. We would have to –” She broke off, staring at the rapidly approaching Ekhat wreckage in horror. “– suit up and go — outside — and attach them by hand.”

“No!” Lliant lurched to his feet. His bruised face was contorted with emotion. “I will not!”

Jihan wished she had brought poor homely Pyr in the Ekhatlore’s place. She had no doubt her elian’s youngest would have put his hand to anything required without a single protest. “Is this fear?” she said. “From one who is convinced that he is already dead?”

“I will suit up,” Hadata said quietly. “Even death out there will be better than falling into the sun.”

“And so will he,” Jihan said, “because if he refuses, I will push him out the airlock in his naked skin!”

His startled gaze turned to her. He was taller, more heavily built, and she had an injured arm, but she felt the blood pounding in her throat and knew that she had all-out fury on her side. She could see he recognized that too. “Well?”

Lliant rose and stripped out of his Ekhatlore robes with sharp, angry motions, casting the brocaded fabric aside. Then he and Hadata suited up while Jihan painstakingly maneuvered them ever closer to their objective with delicate firings of their remaining thrusters.

The Ekhat derelict grew larger and larger in the screen as they approached. It would dwarf them, once they came alongside. Jihan could not take her eyes off it. Were there survivors who had detected the little ship on a docking course that would rendezvous with them? Was anyone left alive to fire upon them?

If so, the Starwarder, the Ekhatlore, and the Jaolore were about to come nose to nose with the infamous great devils who ate the universe.


Kaln krinnu ava Krant was pleased to be assigned to an assault craft dispatched to investigate the Ekhat wreckage. Though the Lexington had taken damage, the immense ship had survived with minimal casualties. Compared to the previous battle, in which Krant had lost one vessel in transit, a second to Ekhat fire, and had a third irreparably damaged against only one of their enemy’s ships, this action was a resounding success. The Terra-Captain’s audacity dazzled them all, and these humans — well, they fought much better than Kaln would have ever credited, had she not seen it for herself.

Mallu was assigned to this mission, too, though Jalta had been left behind with the medicians, recovering from a shoulder wound. She noticed, as Baker Company filed aboard down in one of the hanger bays, most of the rest on this mission were humans. But, there were also a smattering of Jao who had joined Terra Taif and now wore the dark-blue jinau trousers, and they all seemed to be in association. Not perfect, of course. She saw a bit of jostling for position on both sides, not to mention some brashly angled Jao ears, but the two species appeared to have a solid working relationship.

And, even more intriguing, these humans didn’t look down on Krant either. She remembered how Tully had listened to her ideas about improving the hoist. That would never have happened on a Jao ship, especially one not owned by her kochan. It was possible that humans just didn’t know enough about Jao to understand Krant’s low ranking, but, whatever the reason, the end results were the same. For the first time in her life, she felt like an equal among others outside her kochan.

Lieutenant Caewithe Miller settled on a bench seat next to Kaln, checking a hand-held. She was diminutive, even for a human, but Kaln had watched her direct her subordinates very capably.

“Have you ever seen an Ekhat?” the human female asked, turning dead-white eyes with those strange centers upon Kaln. The color varied among humans. This one’s were a shade of blue.

Kaln’s good ear flattened in surprise and she felt even the damaged one stir a bit. Maybe sensation would return to it after all. “Only dead ones,” she said.

Miller’s posture seemed almost attentive. “They look huge in the vids.”

“Most are very large, yes,” Kaln said.

Miller glanced over at Tully, then grimaced, baring her teeth. “Not as large as Paul Bunyan, I bet.”

“Pool — Bantyam?” Kaln tried to replicate the sounds, but did not think she got them quite right.

Warning beeps sounded. The hatch closed, then the assault craft lurched forward, heading for the retracting hanger bay doors. “You have not yet heard of Paul Bunyan,” Miller said, “and Babe the Blue Ox?”

“Are they members of the Lexington crew?” Kaln had not been concerned with names when she worked down in the magazine with the gun mount crew. Mostly, since coming onboard, she had dealt with Major Tully, and he had never mentioned these particular individuals.

“No, no,” Miller said. She glanced at a device on her wrist. “Well, we have some time to –” She grimaced again. “– kill, as a human would say, before we reach our objective, so let me tell you about Paul Bunyan and Babe.”

Kill time? Kaln had heard that humans were time-blind, but why did that make them think they could actually do away with any portion of it? Perhaps they were crazy, after all.

“This happened long ago,” Miller said, “on Terra, when humans moved into a wilderness and needed to cut down a forest quickly. Paul was what we call a ‘lumberjack.'”