THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 64
“And then what?” Jihan said. “We skulk here and die in perfect peace?”
Hadata’s aureole sank.
“They are the Ekhat’s enemy,” Jihan continued, “as are we. They might render us aid, if we so requested.”
“By the size and design of that monstrous ship, all we know for certain about them is that they are powerful.” Lliant turned in his seat to stare at them with smoldering black eyes. “Power cares nothing for the weak. Whether they detect us or not, they will destroy us too when they take out the Ekhat wreck. Not that it matters.” He twisted away again. “We are already dead.”
“Stop saying that!” Jihan’s anger resurged. “You sound like one of the hopeless unchosen from the dochaya, worse even! I have found them at least willing to put their hands to whatever is required, despite their unfortunate situation. I should have brought one of them instead!”
Hadata gave her a questioning look, but she ignored it. “I think,” Jihan said, “we must contact these aliens, or else we will die, either like that Anj burning up in the sun, or when our air and power and supplies are exhausted.”
“But what could we possibly say to them,” Hadata said, “and how will we communicate? They most certainly will not speak Lleix or Ekhat.”
“When the moment comes,” Jihan said, “we will find a way to make ourselves understood.” She tapped a finger against her forehead. “Two of us will go aboard the wreck to observe, if they do indeed dock with it. The other will stay behind.”
“I will stay here,” Lliant said.
“No, you will not,” Jihan said. “There is no way I can trust you out of my sight.”
The lead assault craft jinau pilot, Kristal Dalgetty, spotted what looked like a hanger bay on the sunward side of the derelict, so Tully authorized that approach.
“We will have to blast the door, sir,” she said. “And that’s bound to attract attention if any of them are left and they haven’t already detected us.”
“I’d bet a hundred dollars they know we’re here.” Tully stuck his head around the bulkhead. “Krant-Captain, come forward.”
Mallu lurched to his feet and made his way past the rows of bench seats. All the eyes followed him, both Terran and Jao. “Yes, Major?”
“You have more experience at this sort of thing,” Tully said. “What recommendations do you have about boarding an Ekhat ship?”
“Avoid it if at all possible,” Mallu said immediately. Green lightning danced in those black, black eyes.
Tully barked a laugh, then cut himself off when it was all too apparent that Mallu had not intended the comment as humorous. “Unfortunately, in this case, we cannot avoid boarding since those are our orders.”
Mallu sighed. That, at least, was a mannerism that Jao shared with humans and usually signified about the same thing. His ears canted at half-mast. “That should be a storage bay for the smaller ships they employ from time to time. They will defend it vigorously, if any of the crew have survived, but it should not have defensive weapon emplacements inside.”
“All right, then, strap in,” Tully said. “We will use that area as our insertion point.” Mallu retreated as the pilot relayed the commands to the other two assault craft.
It required considerable laser fire from two of the three assault ships before the door was compromised. When the debris field cleared, Tully could see it hadn’t burned cleanly off, but hung from what must be the Ekhat version of hinges. “Pretty solid construction,” he murmured, gazing at the screen.
Mallu returned, his body gone to what Tully was fairly certain was simple, unadulterated question.
“We can get in,” Tully said, “but not by landing the ships. We will have to transfer outside.” He considered the situation. It wouldn’t do to risk their transport to the Ekhat’s nonexistent mercy anyway.
He nodded at Dalgetty. “Patch me in with the other two ships.”
The pilot bent her sandy-haired head, working for a moment, then gave Tully a thumbs-up.
“This is Major Tully,” he said. “We will board the Ekhat derelict, starting with this ship. Once all combat personnel have unloaded, pilots are to stand off two kilometers and wait for my orders.”
He hesitated. “I know it will be difficult, but if anything is left alive over there, we want to keep them alive. Do what you can to make it happen, but not at the sacrifice of your own hide. Any questions?”
Nobody spoke up, so he had Dalgetty shut off the circuit. “Take us in,” he said, then went back to join his troops.
Third-Note-Ascending marked the approach of the three vessels in the viewing tank, which still functioned in intermittent flickers. It was growing cold in the pod as environmental controls failed.
Five ships lost! Against a solitary alien vessel, albeit one large and heavily armed. It was hard to reconcile that development with any melody. The lost note still warbled inside her mind.
But now, when she could no longer go after them, the sub-sapients were coming to her. Anticipation sang through her blood, lightening her burden. She would meet them with Half, along with what Anj remained, and demonstrate what it meant to be part of the unfolding Ekha.
She tapped into her protective suit’s audio circuits and directed all surviving serviles to assemble in the Conductor’s Pod. Their certain terror was a pleasant leitmotif to the broad underlying bass line of the coming havoc. She had slaughtered all who had dared enter her presence earlier. The Anj knew that, but they would come anyway, because such was their place in the great composition.
Joy surged through Third and at least a hint of it must have made it through to Half, because he suddenly rejoined her. Their mental fields flared, then snapped back together. With so much to look forward to, it was hard even to regret the lost note.