The Span Of Empire – Snippet 02
“They didn’t leave anything,” Caitlin replied in a grim tone. “It’s beginning to seem utterly hopeless. I think theyâ€™ve already scoured this galactic arm from here on in.”
“We found the Lleix,” Tully said. He bent to pick up a shard of shattered observation window and turned it over in his gloved hand. “They survived, so there must be more species out there.”
“The Lleix had been fleeing and hiding for over a thousand years,” Caitlin said, “and even so the Ekhat found them again and again. If we hadn’t come along when we did, they would have exterminated them at Valeron in that last raid.”
Which would have been a terrible loss, Caitlin acknowledged to herself, picking her way through the rest of the debris. The Lleix, with their amazing capacity to adapt and learn new languages and concepts, were staunch and valued allies now. The Jao/Human taif that ruled Earth had allotted them temporary living space on the Colorado high plains and promised to relocate them to a new world all their own. But so far, on this exploratory expedition, the only habitable worlds they’d found that might have once harbored intelligent life had already been savaged by the Ekhat, every one of them reduced to lifeless cinders like the one overhead at the moment.
Tully turned back to her. “What now, Madam Director?”
What now, indeed? she thought. She was in charge of this disheartening and fruitless chase. What had seemed an exciting opportunity to acquire new allies back on Earth when Preceptor Ronz first approached her now was only tedious, often depressing duty, just going through the motions until they could justify giving give up and returning home.
“Document what we can,” she said, resisting the urge to sigh. “Wrot has taken a shuttle and tech crew to the planet, but I don’t think they’ll find even this much there. From the readings we took in orbit, it doesn’t even have a proper atmosphere left, just a bit of out-gassing from its interior.”
“It’s not your fault,” Tully said. “The Bond laid this course out for us. We’re acting on the best information we have.”
“I know,” she said. “We’ll gather as much data as we can here, then move on to the next system.”
“Even though there most likely won’t be anyone home?” Miller asked.
“It will just take one inhabited world to make this expedition a success,” she said, though she feared she was right, and it was so heartbreaking to follow the scourged trail left by the Ekhat, finding nothing but once verdant planets burned to ashes, a holocaust of dreams, and slaughtered children. “If we can discover even one advanced species, we’ll increase our own chances of prevailing against the Ekhat.”
“And we just might save one more planet and one more people from becoming nothing more than a haunted memorial,” Tully said in a remarkably poetic utterance.
Caitlin looked at him in surprise. “We can try.”
That was reason enough to go on, she decided. To try and keep one more planet from becoming nothing more than an orbiting gravestone for a nameless race.
Senior Tech Kaln krinnu ava Krant prowled the surface of the dusty moon, taking samples and readings while others penetrated the building and its lower levels. Her nap crawled with distaste. Waterless environments always affected her like that. The Jao had evolved in the seas of some now-nameless world and always felt most at home when swimming. She gazed out at the arid, dead landscape. No one had ever swum here, even before the Ekhat had blasted this outpost to ashes. She could not understand a species that could be happy under such circumstances.
But then the Lleix were not swimmers either, yet they had made good lives for themselves, despite the pursuit of the Ekhat. One of the great unstated truths of the universe was that there was no one way to live best. You only had to look at humans and Lleix to understand that. Even the many Jao clans, called kochan, varied in their approach to life and living well. And now that her kochan, Krant, was becoming more prosperous, their two home worlds were changing. Jao, who did not adapt well to change, were being challenged by the alliance to stretch their minds, to see possibilities where none had occurred before. That was mostly the influence of the humans, who pursued ollnat as rigorously as Jao had always pursued pragmatism.
It was her secret that she was attracted to ollnat, that doing things in a new way made life more interesting. She had kept that part of herself hidden with some difficulty until Krant had come in contact with humans and their way of thinking. Humans valued ollnat with the same devotion that Jao strove to be of use. She actually felt at ease among them, since she had come to understand that.
Kaln collected samples of the blasted buildings with her gloved hands, stowing them in her pouch, then recording images on her scanner. This had been a frivolous establishment, set out here on the surface, when it would have been much more efficient to locate all facilities under the moon’s surface, but she supposed, like humans, the view had beguiled them–back when there was a living planet above them in the sky and not a lifeless ball of scorched rock.
She directed Giln, one of her underlings, to retrieve several corpses from the structure, including one of the apparent young as well as adults. They would be stored on the Lexington, command ship of their fleet, for eventual transport back to Terra where scientists could pore over them and glean what could be learned from the dead flesh of these victims. She wondered if they had even seen the Ekhat coming. She chewed on that as her subordinate, aided by a couple of Colonel Tully’s jinau troops, carefully loaded the corpses into body bags. Or had the world just ended for them between one heartbeat and the next in savage blasts of solar plasma?
She had fought in two major battles against the Ekhat, the first destroying or critically damaging three of Krant’s treasured ships and killing most of their crews; then in a second, in the magnificent Lexington captained by then Terra-Captain Dannet krinnu ava Terra herself. Against all odds, Dannet had prevailed against five Ekhat ships in a single battle, an amazing feat, never before equaled. Now, like Kaln, Dannet was assigned to this expedition. The Terra-Captain’s new rank was Fleet Commander, putting her in command of the entire fleet–more like a small fleet, if you counted all the auxiliary ships–that had been assigned to the expedition. The Fleet Commander was still on the Lexington, but no longer as the captain. Instead, in the human way of phrasing it, the big ship now served as the commander’s flagship.
Dannet was all Jao in her devotion to duty and being of use. She had been a gift to Terra from the great kochan of Narvo, in recompense for the actions of a crazed scion who had abused his authority as Terra’s first Jao governor, and she had since proved a valuable one indeed. Her attitudes concerning duty and service provided an exemplar to both Jao and humans within Terra taif. And her astounding combat record as the captain of the Lexington only increased her stature.
Kaln broke off her thoughts when the body bagging was completed. She motioned to Giln and the two of them followed the other techs into the wrecked facility to record additional images and see what little was left of these unfortunate beings. There would not be much, she feared. There never was. The Ekhat were dreadfully efficient. It occurred to her that this was almost Jao-like.
Back on board the Lexington, Caitlin called a meeting in one of the conference rooms on the same deck as her stateroom. They’d been at this for almost a year, visiting dead system after system, but she still felt like a fraud whenever she gave orders in her role as the official holder of oudh on the expedition. Three years before, when the Lexington had made first contact with the Lleix, a misunderstanding instigated first by Kaln and then perpetuated by Wrot had fraudulently presented her as “Queen of the Universe,” in charge of all humans and Jao. That had been embarrassing enough; but now her responsibilities were real and she often felt like a child playing dress-up.
One by one the senior members of the fleet entered the room and sat down. The mood was somber as the room filled. Fleet Commander Dannet krinnu ava Terra entered first, followed by the captains of all four of the Lexington-class battleships and the commander of the support ship fleet. Among these was Krant-Captain Mallu krinnu ava Krant, captain of the Krant warship. It was officially listed in Krant’s shiplists as Krant Ship 3547, but to everyone except perhaps Fleet Commander Dannet it was known as Pool Buntyam. The humans had even christened it so when its construction was complete. Its sister ship, another Lexington-class battleship, in the shiplists as Krant Ship 3548, was Bab the Green Ox. This was also the legacy of the same moment of low humor perpetuated by Kaln that had resulted in Caitlin’s regal title.