Chapter 25

Tully bestowed a silent blessing on Caewithe Miller. The quick-witted lieutenant had fired a flare. Finally, they could see clearly.

The first thing he saw were the two enormous Ekhat storming into the chamber. God, he’d forgotten how big the damn things were! It was like facing some sort of mammoth-sized arachnids.

But before Tully even had time to finish gritting his teeth, Mallu and the special unit were already coming forward to face the monsters. Say what you would about the stiff-necked Krant, they were tough as nails. Tully took a moment to bestow another silent blessing, this one on hillbillies of whatever species.

The first to fire an 84mm recoilless rifle was one of the two Jao whom Mallu had added to the team. Urta or Naddo, from that distance he couldn’t tell which.

Tully was impressed. With only the sketchiest and most rudimentary training, the Jao managed to hit his target dead on. The head of the second and somewhat smaller Ekhat pretty much came apart. The monster’s brain — or whatever did for an equivalent — was destroyed instantly. The Ekhat’s six huge limbs splayed out and the monster began a slow cartwheel toward the far distant wall of the chamber, spraying blood and bits of what were presumably brains everywhere.

Hot damn! One down, one to go.

But Mallu shared none of his pleasure. The invective that followed was more colorful than anything Tully had ever heard coming from a Jao. He couldn’t even follow most of it.

“– brainless crecheling, Naddo! You’ll be lucky if you don’t get served up as” — a term Tully didn’t know came here; several of them, he thought; probably along the lines of stinking filthy dog — “food! Supposed to capture them, you idiot!”

But the object of his ire might very well not have heard him at all. Naddo had obviously not taken to heart the warnings he must have gotten from the two human corporals. “Recoilless” was an almost mystically vague term, applied to any sort of projectile weapon used in null gravity. The Jao soldier who’d fired that Deadeye Dick shot to the head was doing his own cartwheel toward the opposite wall. And not a slow one, either.

The other Jao fired. Urta, that would be. He missed the surviving Ekhat altogether and blew one of the nearby little slaves into pieces. And…

Began his own none-too-slow cartwheel toward a distant wall.
“– scrubbing decks till you keen in misery,” continued Mallu, “you worthless” — here followed a number of Jao terms Tully was unfamiliar with. Probably the names of animals native to the Krant planet. Filthy, loathsome, disgusting vermin, at a guess.

Mallu, normally even-tempered, was obviously in a fury. More than anything he’d ever said, it was that which drove home to Tully just how desperately poor his kochan was. The Krant really needed whatever spoils value would come from capturing a live Ekhat.

Then Thomas Kelly fired. Mallu’s tirade cut off abruptly. The human corporal’s shot struck the surviving Ekhat at what amounted to a knee joint. The lower part of the limb was blown off and sent spinning rapidly at the same wall toward which Urta was headed.

Okay. One down, five to go. If they could sever all six of the monster’s legs, they could probably take it alive. Whether or not that would lead to any sort of communicable interrogation was another matter. Tully thought that was about as likely as the proverbial snowball in hell. But it wasn’t his problem — or the Krants. They’d just been set to the task of catching the critter. Somebody else could try to figure out how to talk to the damn thing.

Unfortunately, the success of Kelly’s shot made the rest of it harder. Some of the impact of that shot had been absorbed by the bulk of the Krant’s body, of course. And while the huge creature hadn’t been sent into the rapid spin of its now-severed leg, it was still sent spinning.

A slow spin, true — but an 84mm goose wasn’t really a sharpshooter’s weapon. The damn thing was designed to destroy tanks, not shoot apples off spinning little William Tell’s head.

Or was William Tell the guy who shot the bow? Or crossbow, whatever it was. Tully couldn’t remember the stupid legend, which he didn’t believe anyway.

But Dennis Greer’s shot, coming right on the heels of that thought, proved him wrong. Or maybe the corporal was just lucky. Tully didn’t care. Either way, another lower limb was severed and sent on its merry blood-spewing way.

Greer’s 84mm round had blown off the rear leg on the same side as the leg that Kelly had taken off. If they’d been under gravity conditions, the monster would have toppled to the floor and been effectively immobilized. That couldn’t happen in null gravity, of course, but the Ekhat was still pretty effectively crippled. Half-stunned, obviously, if nothing else. One of the wretched little slaves leapt to its master’s side, trying to stem the bleeding of the front limb. The Ekhat rewarded it by taking off its head with one snap of the immense claws on its surviving front limb. Then, seized the torso and smashed it against the deck.

Why? Maddened by pain, maybe. Or maybe just murderous-maniac bat-crazy Ekhat. Who knew?

Or cared. Not Tully. All he wanted was that thing down and legless. What was most important was that, by sheer good luck, the monster’s slam against the deck had largely nullified its spin. As a target, it was almost stationary.

As Kelly promptly demonstrated by firing a shot that took off one of the limbs on the Ekhat’s opposite side. Three down, three to go. Of course, inevitably, the impact sent the Ekhat into a slow spin again. It was not a perfect universe.

Belatedly, it occurred to Tully that the problem with such a rough multi-limb amputation was that the monster would just bleed out. But there didn’t seem to be much of its hideous-colored ichor coming out of the shredded limbs. Most likely — as was true of human and Jao fighting suits — the Ekhat’s suit was designed to cut off blood flow in the event a limb was severed.

Humans and Jao used what amounted to automatic tourniquets for the purpose. The Ekhat being Ekhat, they probably used cauterization. But it didn’t matter. Either way, there was a good chance the creature would survive having its six limbs blown off.

Guiltily, Tully realized he’d been so pre-occupied by the fight with the two Ekhat that he’d ignored what else might be happening in the cavern. But, looking around, he relaxed. Miller had taken charge of that fight, and he could see she and her people were mopping up what was left of the Anj without much trouble.

They’d never been much trouble, really. Tully could only see two human casualties. One was obviously dead, the suit ruptured and the body surrounded by a cloud of blood-mist. But from the way the medics were working on the other one of them, Tully didn’t think he or she was badly wounded. The Anj, he now realized — these Anj, anyway — had never served the Ekhat as the kind of Janissary soldiers the Jao had been. They were probably just ship-handlers, as inept in a hand-to-hand fight like this as any similar group of human flight engineers would have been.