Chapter 23

Jihan tested the line with her good arm and found it solid, then the creature — whatever it was — bowled into her and she floated away from the derelict again.

She twisted around. Lliant was headed toward the airlock and Jihan had no doubt that he was fully capable of sealing her and Hadata outside to save his own skin. “Go after him!” she called to the Starwarder.

Her attacker was too small to be an Ekhat, according to the images she had studied. Neither did it resemble a Jao. Its torso was long and sinuous with four stubby limbs a quarter of the length of her own, and it was shrouded in a white casing with a clear bubble on the end, not a proper environment suit with a helmet like the three Lleix wore. It would be about a third of her height, she thought, if they stood face to face, and had unblinking red eyes.

“What in the name of the Boh is it?” Hadata called as the beast ineffectively pummeled Jihan with all four limbs.

Terrified, Jihan kicked it away so that it sailed toward the end of the derelict. She was drifting backwards then and had to stabilize her position with the maneuvering jets.

When she could spare the attention again, Lliant had reentered the Starwarder ship and Hadata had propelled herself halfway back. Jihan feared the creature would right itself, as she had, and attack again, but it just skimmed on past the end of the derelict, limbs flailing. She watched, sick with fear, the rasp of her own overwrought breathing harsh in her ears.

Her attacker had no control devices, she realized, nor any safety line anchoring it to the ship. By thoughtlessly jumping her like that, it had just condemned itself to orbit the sun for a short time, then burn to cinders.

“Come on!” Hadata called. “There may be more of them!”

Shaking, Jihan used her jets to follow the other two back to their own ship. She saw Lliant reach the controls inside the airlock first. He appeared to be trying to trigger the seal without waiting for the other two, but Hadata got there in time to jerk him off and take over. Once Jihan made it inside the airlock, the Starwarder ran the cycle and then they were safe again, for the moment.

The artificial gravity inside the cabin felt wonderful, though the air was cold and stale. She no longer had the terrible sensation of endlessly falling and the walls blessedly protected her from the sight of the bloated sun, so dangerously near.

“What was that creature?” Hadata said, as she helped Jihan struggle one-armed out of her suit.

Lliant was already standing naked before a console, his shoulders hunched, his backbone knobby beneath his beautifully silver skin. He reached for his robes with trembling hands. “It was probably an Anj,” he said, “one of the client species of The Melody.”

With a jerk, he pulled the brocaded robes over his arms and shoulders, then fiddled with the draping, taking great care with the folds as though such niceties mattered out here, so very far from eyes that judged one’s worth by such things. “The beasts are considered little more than vermin by their Ekhat masters, entirely disposable. Ekhatlore has never been certain that they were more than half-sapient, trainable, but not independently intelligent.”

So it had given its life for masters who cared nothing for it just to perish in that gruesome fashion. Jihan shuddered.

“Now, what, Eldest?” Hadata asked, as Jihan kicked off the clumsy boots that were part of the environment suit.

She had been so focused upon avoiding their headlong plunge into the blazing heart of the sun, she hadn’t thought much beyond stabilizing the ship. Jihan half-fell into one of the empty chairs, legs shaking, her aureole barely able to flutter, and stared at the screen. Her wrenched arm ached and she cradled it across her chest.

“We should check the most probable vectors between here and Valeron,” she said finally. “Even though we cannot receive messages, at least part of our request for assistance may have transmitted. Perhaps one of the Starsifter or Starwarder ships is on its way to pick us up.”

Hadata went back to the pilot’s station, and then Jihan regarded Lliant, remembering how in his panic he had thrust her away. Any number of factors could have intervened, and then she could be falling into the sun along with the unfortunate Anj this very moment. Anger clouds the reason, she told herself. Sayr would have known what to say in this situation, how to impart wisdom without irrevocably shaming the miscreant.

But all she could think of was the endless depths and the roaring furnace to which the Ekhatlore had nearly doomed her. For his part, he hunched over his console, punching up stats, taking useless readings. She wanted to strike him, but that was not what an Eldest did when youngers behaved badly, and so she held onto that thought until her shaking subsided.

“We need food,” she said finally and flicked her fingers at Lliant. “Go through the supplies and see what is available.”

He rose without protest and went to the rear of the cabin.

Suddenly Hadata leapt out of her seat, staring at her viewscreen.

“Is someone coming?” Jihan asked. She struggled to her feet, wincing at her wrenched arm, then crossed the cabin to peer at the screen herself.

Hadata’s hands twitched at her robes. “Yes,” she said slowly, “but not one of ours.” The Starwarder’s eyes narrowed so that Jihan could barely see their gleaming blackness. “Three ships, all larger than any of our Starwarder or Starsifter designs, approaching on a vector that indicates they launched from that enormous newcomer.”

The aliens had dispatched their own ships? Jihan tried to make sense of that. “What do they want?” Not to rescue three desperate Lleix, she was certain of that. Even if they’d intercepted their call for assistance, they wouldn’t have been able to translate it.

Lliant returned with three dried rations packets in his hands. “They come to destroy what is left of the Ekhat vessel, of course,” he said bleakly. “The very same hulk to which we just anchored ourselves. With care, they will be able to take us all out with a single volley.”

He was most likely right, Jihan thought. What other reason could there be? “And, yet,” she said, “if they merely want to destroy the derelict, could they not safely target it from their primary vessel? Why send three smaller, less heavily armed ships into potential danger? After such a battle, they can be under no misapprehension that the Ekhat will not attack if they are able.”

“Perhaps they intend to parley with them,” Hadata said, “or take prisoners.”

“No one takes Ekhat prisoner,” Lliant said with a weary shrug. “When they are cornered, they terminate themselves. They cannot bear the taint of contact with what they consider to be lower species. They even terminate themselves on the rare occasions that they initiate communication.”

“We should stay in our ship and see what happens,” Hadata said. “We are quite small compared to the derelict. It is entirely possible that they will not even notice us, concealed as we are in its shadow.”