The Span Of Empire – Snippet 01

The Span Of Empire

By Eric Flint and David Carrico

With K. D. Wentworth



Chapter 1

The gray moon still held a few ruins, mostly extending beneath the surface, while the once habitable planet visible overhead in the airless sky had been scoured lifeless with solar plasma in that gruesome way the Ekhat had so long ago perfected. Suited up against the vacuum, Caitlin Kralik stepped down carefully from the shuttle and rotated her body to get a better view. Inside the helmet, her breathing rasped in her ears and she felt awkward in the low gravity, which was only about a fifth of that of her home world, Earth.

The Ekhat plasma strikes had not been aimed only at the planet. Caitlin had to watch the placement of her feet, because the shuttle had landed at the edge of a strike here on the moon, and the nearby surface was marred by ribbons of solidified molten splash from that attack. She picked her way across the flow until she reached her destination, a structure that was just far enough away from the center of the plasma strike that it had survived, albeit with serious damage.

The pitiful remains of the moon’s former inhabitants, mummified by exposure to vacuum, were scattered across what had once probably been the observation deck of an eating establishment. Thick glass lay shattered in the moon dust, the shards reflecting the starlight like discarded diamonds. Metal struts that had formed the supporting structure had been melted into formless slag that had puddled, then solidified on the ground.

These nameless people, listed nowhere in the Jao database, had been diminutive with long sinuous arms and a multitude of digits that resembled tentacles far more than fingers. Their hairless heads were narrow, their eyes small and recessed deeply into their skulls. They had apparently loved color because red, purple, orange, and blue clothing draped their shriveled torsos.

Many of the mummified corpses were tiny and had fallen clutching one another. Small figures made of a plastic-like substance lay scattered about, most of them crushed, broken, or melted. Caitlin picked one up and turned it over in her gloved hand. It was iridescent blue and seemed to be some sort of animal with an oversized skull and three slender trunks.

Then she realized–they were probably toys. Dear God, these small bodies were most likely children. Had this been some sort of daycare or a creche for the raising of the next generation?

Her eyes felt damp, but Caitlin resisted the urge to weep for these lost people. If she gave into her emotions now, she would have to cry for the rest of her life because the damned Ekhat had apparently been everywhere in this arm of the galaxy, working their way out from the galactic center and killing every sentient being in their path except for those they enslaved. The Ekhat had done their maniac worst here long ago and moved on, seeking more victims.

“These people have obviously been dead for millennia,” she said. “Could even be a million years, who knows? The Ekhat are ancient.” Her fists knotted in frustration. “There’s no way we could ever have gotten here in time to help.”

“We will take measurements,” Kaln krinnu ava Krant said, responding to Caitlin’s rhetorical statement with Jao literalness. “At least, the information will fill out the database and allow our calculations to be more accurate.”

The Jao tech had joined the landing party from the Lexington class ship that the Krant kochan had contributed to the fleet. Caitlin’s shuttle had contained techs from all over the fleet, since it was obvious soon after they had jumped in that the system was lifeless. Kaln wouldn’t be needed on her ship for now and had joined the others to make herself of use by helping with forensics instead of preparing for battle. That of course was the way of things when working with Jao. For them, making oneself of use at all times was of the highest priority.

The Jao stared at her, body neutral, waiting, and Caitlin realized that her statement had actually been a request for direction. Caitlin had oudh, as the Jao termed it, in this search for sentient life and new allies. It was for her to decide how to proceed.

“Yes,” she said. “Please collect samples and take the proper readings.” For all the good it will do these poor lost devils, or even us, for that matter, she told herself.

This was the second dead civilization they had found since they had left Earth almost a year ago out of eighty-one systems visited, working their way by frame gate travel along the Orion arm of the galaxy toward the center. The first one hadn’t been technologically advanced enough to spread beyond their own planet, though.

There might have been sentient populations on two other planets, but if so they’d been too technologically primitive to have left traces after the Ekhat scoured the planets with plasma balls. The expedition had also passed by many more solar systems than they’d investigated, because they’d been able to determine that they didn’t have habitable planets. It was possible that a few survivors of a ravaged species might have been hiding in one of those systems, if they had the technological capability. But the likelihood was remote and they couldn’t check every possibility.

And if they did, they probably wouldn’t have detected anything anyway. Such a species would have to be very well hidden, if they’d been able to escape Ekhat attention.

Caitlin had known the Ekhat were fiercely efficient exterminators. But it was one thing to know it with the logical part of her brain, and another altogether to stand over the remains of slaughtered children and their broken toys.

Kaln’s arms moved in a choppy version of the Jao posture signifying orders-acknowledged. The Jao kochan of Krant, though tough and reliable, was not much taken with fancy body-styling. The Jao was taller than Caitlin, taller even than her husband, Ed, built broad and stocky with heavy bones. Her dark-russet face with its nearly invisible black facial markings, or vai camiti, blinked at her with green-laced black eyes, then Kaln gestured to one of the tech teams emerging from the shuttle with their equipment.

Captain Caewithe Miller, commander of Caitlin’s bodyguard, picked her way through the debris into the shattered observation deck and stared down at the corpses. “We have to stop the Ekhat,” she said. “Things cannot go on like this.”

Caitlin nodded, though the gesture felt foolish in the stiff spacesuit. Someone did need to stop the insane Ekhat in their quest to exterminate all sentient life in the Universe. She just wasn’t sure it could be their Jao/Human/Lleix alliance. The Ekhat were an incredibly old and vicious species, and successful at killing far beyond anything humans had ever imagined before the Jao had conquered Earth.

When the Jao had arrived on her world, over twenty-five years ago, they had defeated Earth’s armies after a short but savage war and then installed their own government. They had informed their new subjects about the dangers of the Ekhat, but humans had not believed them. Even her father, who had been Vice President of the United States at the time of the initial invasion, then later puppet ruler of North America for the Jao, had not credited the stories about the fiendish bogeyman aliens who wanted nothing more than to be alone in the Universe with their own perfection.

What they had not understood in those early days was that the Jao, though consummate warriors and gifted techs, had no capacity for imagination or prevarication. They had been uplifted into sentience long ago by a faction of the Ekhat to serve as warrior-slaves in the ongoing slaughter of all intelligent life. The ability to picture that-which-did-not-exist, what they called ollnat, had been bred out of them long before they finally freed themselves from their terrible masters. They did not make things up because they couldn’t.

When the Ekhat had later attacked Earth, humans realized that the Ekhat were far more terrible than the Jao had ever been able to make them understand. The reality of the Ekhat was a hundred times worse than any tale ever told, no matter how gruesome.

Gabe Tully emerged from the shuttle, a gun slung across his shoulder, although there was no one left to fight here in this depressing moonscape. He had accompanied a squad of his soldiers; not that anyone expected there to be any dangerous Ekhat or other aliens lurking in dark vacuum corners. Still, the occasional need for strong backs still arose, even in this day of starships and solar plasma balls. He hopped toward them, using long gliding strides in the low gravity. “Didn’t leave much, did they?” he said, plowing to a stop just short of Captain Miller.

His tanned face beneath his gold hair surveyed the wreckage and dead bodies. He looked a little green beneath the tan. Caitlin knew he didn’t like space travel and would have much rather remained back on Earth, cajoling the remaining scattered pockets of the human Resistance to come out and use their fierce will to help in the fight against the Ekhat.