THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 62
When Mallu reported back to Tully, he found the human officer in the assault craft’s rather small command deck. The monstrous outline of the Ekhat derelict filled the screen now, backlit by the boiling inferno of the system’s sun. The pilot, a human female named Kristal Dalgetty, looked over her shoulder at them. “Strap in, sirs. We are about to fire maneuvering jets.”
As he strapped himself into his seat, Tully’s mind was on the recent conversation with Mallu, not the approaching Ekhat.
Association with Krant…
On the one hand, it was obviously a dirt-poor kochan. Dismissed by most Jao, if not exactly sneered at, and with very little in the way of resources.
Fine. They were a bunch of backwoods hillbillies. Who cared? Not Tully, for damn sure. He’d spent most of his life as a Resistance fighter in the mountains. If not quite a hillbilly himself, at least a first cousin. Now that he’d fought alongside them, the Krant were okay in his book.
Besides, Terra Taif was fighting for status and respectability, far more than it needed wealth and resources. The fact was, although few of the Jao kochan were astute enough to realize it, that with its enormous population — Terra was by far the most densely inhabited planet in the known galaxy — and its technical advancement, Terra Taif was already more resource-rich than all but the great kochan.
What it really needed was simply… Association itself. Terra Taif needed to develop the vast and rich network of connections and alliances and agreements and quid-pro-quos with other kochan that was the single most important fount of power and influence among the Jao. And if that started with bringing into its orbit an impoverished kochan on the fringes of Jao society, so be it.
Baby steps, and all that. As the assault craft neared the hideous-looking Ekhat wreck, Tully reviewed one hoary axiom after another.
The longest voyage starts with a single step. You do what you can.
There were a lot of them. Enough to keep his nerves steady, thankfully. That damn derelict really was uglier than sin. What was it about the Ekhat, anyway? The maniacs couldn’t seem to do or make anything that didn’t have a horrible appearance. If they made mashed potatoes, the mashed potatoes would look scary.
Jihan was anxious as she struggled into stiff protective clothing so that they could exit the vessel and attach the tethers. None of her experience as a Starsifter included actually working outside a ship, though, as a safety measure, she had been trained in the correct procedure. Hadata assisted her, but Lliant had turned his back, steadfastly not-seeing her, as though he had the right to oyas-to in this situation, which he most assuredly did not.
It did not matter, she told herself, easing the damaged arm into its sleeve. Nothing mattered except that they survive the next few breaths, and then the ones following. And, to do so, they had to clamp this ship to the derelict before they tumbled into the sun’s photosphere or all the bad manners in the universe would make no difference.
Hadata settled Jihan’s helmet onto her shoulders, then closed the seals. She heard a whoosh as the suit’s systems activated, then she was alone with the sound of her own breathing. It seemed quite thunderous, but that was probably a byproduct of her tightly-controlled fear.
The three of them walked clumsily then to the airlock, Lliant hanging back. She motioned him in before her, not trusting that he would actually leave the ship if she lost sight of him, even briefly. Once he was in the airlock, she stepped in and closed the door. The system cycled, and then they were face to face with the sun with its overwhelming, blazing presence and the looming Ekhat derelict. Despite the energy signatures she had detected from within, the wreck was holed, pitted, and scorched. It looked thoroughly dead from this vantage point.
They clipped their tethers to the Starwarder ship and then activated the suits’ tiny maneuvering jets to launch themselves across. It was terrible and wonderful, all at the same time. Though the situation was indeed dire, Jihan felt strangely free in that moment, and the sun, on the other side of the wreck, was gloriously huge, swirling and flowing, in constant motion, almost alive itself. The nebula’s gases prevented those on the planet’s surface from ever seeing the solar system’s star this clearly.
“It is so beautiful,” she murmured, then realized she was going to miss the derelict and corrected her angle with a burst from her jets.
“You are insane,” Lliant said, landing awkwardly feet-first on the wreck. “It is no wonder the Starsifters cast you out!”
Jihan made contact too, flexing her knees, then sprawled full-length across the alien hull, wringing a wave of pain from her injured arm. Hadata, wiser and more experienced, had halted just short of the wreck and now hovered, seeking the best spot to anchor her cable.
Each tether terminated in an explosive bolt. Of course, Jihan thought, if anything were still alive in there, sinking bolts into their hull might attract unwelcome attention. But they had no choice. It was either this or die in very short order. No matter how beautiful the sun was, she had no wish to dive into its heart.
Hadata activated her bolt and it burst through the plating. She tested it, then turned to Lliant. “Hurry up,” the Starwarder said.
He knelt to position his, then fumbled the release, lost hold of the tether, and floated away from the hull. He was terrified, Jihan thought, feeling almost sorry for him. The Ekhatlore had studied the great devils all his life, but had never expected to come this close to them.
She edged closer to assist him. With an angry oath, he pushed her away. She spun off the surface, but fortunately had enough presence of mind to keep hold of her tether. Even without gravity, spinning, so that her visual field was filled with the ship — the derelict — the ship — in rapid succession made her dizzy. After a moment, though, she regained stability with her maneuvering jets.
“Idiot!” Hadata was saying. “You could have killed her!”
“What does it matter? We are all dead anyway!” With a choked cry, Lliant cast away his tether and Hadata launched herself to retrieve it. Face averted, the Ekhatlore floated above the derelict, arms clenched across his chest.
“You certainly will be,” Jihan said, as the blood pounded through her veins, “if you try something like that again. I do not care how frightened you are!” Behind her lay the immense blackness of space laced with red and blue gasses from the nebula. Before her hung the sun and the damaged derelict. It was all overwhelming.
“Frightened?” Lliant twisted clumsily to face her, more than a body length above the pitted hull. Through his helmet, she could see how his aureole was flattened against his face. “The dead cannot be frightened.”
Hadata fired the second bolt into the derelict, then turned to Jihan. “Let me have yours,” she said.
“No, I can do it,” Jihan said and maneuvered with her jets to return to the wreck. She selected a third site for the tether, roughly equidistant from the two bolts already seated, and had just positioned hers against the hull when a suited creature thrust its head through one of the jagged holes.
Lliant shrieked and then jetted back toward the Starwarder vessel.
Hands shaking, Jihan fired the third bolt into the hull.