The Span Of Empire – Snippet 09

Close-by, Fleet Commander Dannet looked up over her shoulder at Caitlin. The black eyes danced with green fire. Dannet’s ears canted to an angle that communicated disapproval. “You should take a seat, Director Kralik. It would not do to have you injured on the jump.” She turned back to the console she was monitoring. “That would create a lot of fuss over your well-being at a moment when we could least afford to have our attention diverted from what really matters.”

Wrot took her arm. “Just what I was going to say,” he murmured in Caitlin’s ear, “sort of.” He settled her into a seat before a vacant station next to Lieutenant Vaughan. She fastened her harness.

The screen crawled with figures that she supposed no one needed to know at the moment.

“First framepoint generator set,” a voice said.

The ship trembled beneath her feet like an eager hound about to be released on the hunt.

Uldra checked one screen, then another, his ears pitched at a mostly approving angle, though occasionally lowering in dissatisfaction as he pointed out an error that needed to be corrected. He was a calmer captain than Dannet had been, Caitlin thought, remembering how the big Jao had stalked about the command deck, cuffing those who were slow to handle their responsibilities, even throwing one to the deck and taking over the station herself. Of course, to be fair, Dannet had been working with an unfamiliar and mixed crew of Jao and humans, not those from Narvo, her former kochan.

That, of course, was the norm for this fleet two-plus years later. Only the Krant ship Pool Buntyam was crewed solely by a Jao crew. Even Dannet seemed to be resigned to the integrated crews these days, although one could still see flashes of irritation in her posture from time to time.

“Second framepoint generator set,” a different voice said with no more excitement that someone reading the choices for dinner off a menu board.

The vibration increased, so that the ship herself seemed eager to get on with the jump, which all the Jao present mostly found a thoroughly ridiculous notion, she thought.

“We’re getting close,” Wrot said.

She took a deep breath. They had jumped the Lexington many times now. The crew knew what it was doing. They would come out into a new system and hope that this time they would find what–and who–they were looking for.

The shaking increased. Wrot seemed to settle somehow into a waiting-for-necessity position that gave the air of being as solid as a mountain.

“Third framepoint generator set,” another crewman said, and this time there was just the slightest hint of excitement in his tone.

Uldra’s posture said calm-acceptance. Caitlin looked over at Dannet, whose body was angled to communicate disdain. One did not surrender to crude excitement when merely doing one’s job, at least one did not if one was Narvo, which Dannet would always be, no matter that she had been gifted to Terra Taif like a prize heifer to make up for Oppuk’s crimes.

“Fourth framepoint generator set,” a female voice said.

The ship was lurching beneath their feet now. Caitlin hastily checked the harness that would keep her from being ejected from the seat. “I hate this part,” she said, just loudly enough for her guards to hear.

“Amen,” Captain Miller muttered back from where she grasped the station console for balance. She looked pale, but resigned. “I don’t hate it as much as the thought of what could be waiting for us on the other end, though,” she finished.

It could be something wonderful or something terrible, Caitlin thought. The only way to know was to jump and take a look.

“Fifth set!” a male voice said.

The ship rocked beneath their feet as though buffeted by five monstrous opposing tidal waves, all trying to wash it out to sea in a different direction.

“You may jump, Navigator Annen,” Uldra said.

The great ship leaped.

As always, Caitlin’s stomach was left behind. She gritted her teeth, feeling distinctly unwell, as though being torn apart and compressed into exotic matter at the same time. She tasted blue on the back of her tongue, saw the strange gleam of bittersweet behind her eyes, felt the rasp of fear along her spine.

It will be over in a heartbeat, Caitlin told herself. Jao endured this all the time and had for centuries now. She could not let herself be seen to be weak.

Captain Miller was swearing under her breath. Her face was very pale. Her grip on the console showed white knuckles at every joint.

On and on they went, traveling and not-traveling, propelling themselves through something that simply was not-there, striding across the galaxy with seven-league boots like some preposterous fairy tale character.

Then, with a jerk, they arrived, existing at least somewhere again, when only a second ago they had been both nowhere and everywhere. Caitlin’s breath blew out. She hadn’t even been aware she was trying to hold it.

“I will never get used to that!” Caewithe muttered with a gulp.

“Amen.” This time it was Caitlin who replied.

The view screen blazed with light, the local view of the photosphere of this system’s star that surrounded them. “I guess we made it,” Caitlin murmured.

Terra-Captain Uldra strode from screen to screen, checking readouts, his body showing cautious-approval with every step. Caitlin looked over to the lift. Tamt flicked an ear of inquiry at her. She shook her head and Tamt settled back into place by the door. The Jao guard showed no effects at all, just like the Jao members of the command deck crew.

Caitlin looked back to Miller, who had released the console and straightened, but still looked a bit green around the gills and showed a few sweat beads on her forehead. She nodded at Caitlin who had to smile. Miller was always trying to prove herself to the Jao. If they took no notice of the discomfort of a jump, neither would she, as far as she was able.

Over the course of the next minute, the other three battleships reported in, all having jumped safely.

The screen brightened, then just for a second, Caitlin could see the darkness of space punctuated by distant stars. The fiery plasma closed in again. They were enveloped by starfire. That was the part to which she would never become accustomed.

Her heartbeat accelerated again, which she hadn’t thought possible. What was out there on the other side of that brightness? Friend? Foe? Or, most likely, more dead worlds?

“Shedding plasma,” one of the bridge crew said, a slight Krant male Caitlin had seen on duty before but never picked up his name.

Ten more minutes passed. The sensors detected the other ships of the fleet arriving. Caitlin checked her watch when she thought no Jao were looking. The plasma thinned. The times when their instruments could see lengthened. Nothing was close to the star. At least no Ekhat seemed to be waiting on them. This was most likely going to be another disappointment.

Then the plasma cleared for the last time. They were out of the photosphere.

“Scanning,” one of the Jao said.

Caitlin released the harness and stood to get a better view of the main screen. Techs were checking the system’s orbits for habitable planets. Most star systems had one, occasionally even two or three, if you counted marginal worlds where the gravity would be too high or too low, no liquid water existed, or the atmosphere was unsuitable for breathing without assistance.

“Coming about,” said the navigator.

Lieutenant Vaughan suddenly spat out a single hard-edged word. “Damn!”

Had he spotted something? Caitlin squinted at the screen, then saw what he had already spotted.

“Oh . . . my,” she said.

Miller said something even stronger.