The Span Of Empire – Snippet 10

Chapter 3

Caitlin leaned over to Vaughan. “Are those what I think they are?” The large vision screen was now set to distance imaging, and the images on the screen were not direct visualizations of whatever objects the ship’s detection devices were focusing on. They bore a closer resemblance to old-fashioned radar blips, although they were the product of equipment that was much more sensitive and complex. Still, from past experience–even more, from the obvious tension of the human and Jao crewmen on the command deck–Caitlin was pretty sure she was looking at Ekhat warships.

Quite a few Ekhat warships.

“Yes,” Vaughan said grimly. “That’s an Ekhat fleet. Six ships, at a minimum.”

As if to add emphasis to his words, a loud signal started blaring. That was Battle stations–or the Jao equivalent, rather, which more properly translated as Prepare to fight the enemy. In this as in all things, the Jao tended to be literalists. When humans might say, To arms! the Jao would say Take up weapons! Given a choice between poetry and prose, the Jao would pick prose every time.

Vaughan was looking elsewhere on the detector screen, however, at some sort of largish blobby thing in the corner that Caitlin didn’t remember having ever seen before. He pointed at it.

“See that? I’m not a sensor specialist, but that indicates an inhabited planet. Inhabited and technologically very active. Which means that for the first time in my experience–or any human’s experience, so far as I know–we’ve stumbled onto an Ekhat world.”

Dannet was suddenly standing next to them. “You are correct. This is not something many Jao have ever seen, either. Or at least, survived to tell about it.”

“This just gets better and better,” Caitlin muttered. From the corner of her eye, she could see Wrot shifting position to accepting-reality. She hadn’t intended for anyone to hear that, but Wrot missed very little. She knew he took some pride in that, as well. He twitched his whiskers again. She’d have to find out from him what that particular fillip of body-speech meant.

Wrot didn’t say anything, though. He just turned his head to track Fleet Commander Dannet. The big Jao was back to moving around the command deck much like a restless panther.

That was a pretty good analogy, in fact. Caitlin had learned in the battle of Valeron that Dannet was nothing if not a fighter–and was a firm believer in the old human adage that the best defense is a good offense.

Abstractly, Caitlin figured, that was a splendid quality to have in a naval commander. It could get pretty hair-raising, though, when–to use another old human expression–the shit hit the fan.

Sure enough. Caitlin was an expert in reading Jao body language, and was particularly fluent in the Narvo dialect of that complex quasi-tongue. Dannet’s posture was one she’d never seen before but was not at all difficult to interpret despite being a tripartite posture. Not knowing the formal designation, Caitlin settled on eager-but-held-in-check-anticipation-of-triumph. No doubt the Jao had a more economical way of putting that, but the expression captured the gist of it.

Dannet wasn’t even considering the possibility of fleeing from the scene. She wanted a battle, and despite the odds seemed to feel she had a good chance of winning it.

Caitlin had no idea why the fleet commander would feel that way. She herself, were she not strictly maintaining a posture of resolution-in-the-face-of-peril, would probably be showing the human equivalent of looking-for-a-way-out. She thought of trying for a more difficult tripartite position, but she didn’t think she could keep her hands still enough to add a convincing adamant to what she was already displaying.

“Have the Ekhat detected us?” Dannet asked one of the technical officers. Caitlin didn’t know the Jao’s name, but from his console’s position on the command deck she presumed he was in charge of sensors and detection.

“Almost certainly, Fleet Commander,” he replied. “But we won’t know for certain until–” He broke off for a moment, looking at something on one of the screens that Caitlin couldn’t interpret from a distance–and probably couldn’t have interpreted even if she’d been standing right in front of the screen herself.

“That makes it definite, Fleet Commander. The enemy has spotted us and…”

Again, he paused for a moment, studying another screen. “And now they’re heading toward us.”

What he really meant was “and now they’ve begun an approach which, presuming various intricate maneuvers in response to this solar system’s gravitational constraints and our own actions, will eventually result in their intersecting our course.” But Jao had no patience for such pointless crossing of t’s and dotting of i’s.

Lieutenant Vaughan was pushing control pads on his console and muttering into the boom microphone he was wearing. Caitlin tried to ignore him, and dropped back into her seat and fastened her harness. Things looked like they were about to get interesting, and she had no desire to emulate a ping-pong ball in the command deck.

Dannet turned away from the tech officer and toward Terra-Captain Uldra. “Reverse course back into the photosphere.” Over her shoulder, she said to the com officer: “Order the other battleships to prepare for an ambush. Tactical variant Gamma Bravo is most likely, but variant Delta Delta is also possible. Light attack craft should take station Gamma Rho and wait for opportunities.”

There was a faintly distasteful tinge to her body posture that almost made Caitlin laugh. Those Greek-derivated tactical terms were completely human and not something any Jao–much less a Narvo–would have taken to readily. But the expedition’s personnel was more than seventy percent human, and even the purely naval personnel was only one-third Jao. So, whether the Jao liked it or not, compromises had been made everywhere, including in tactical doctrine and parlance.

Being fair to Dannet, while she sometimes could not quite restrain her irritation from showing, she did accept the political realities–and sometimes displayed an acute ability to use the resulting hybrids to good effect.

Vaughan pushed more pads and muttered into his microphone some more.

The fleet commander continued giving orders to the com officer. “Instruct the supply ships and personnel ships to remain in the photosphere as long as possible. If any of their shielding begins to look seriously compromised, they have permission to retreat back to the framepoint of origin. But tell them that I would much prefer it if they remained with the fleet.”

“Yes, Fleet Commander.”

“Tell the Ban Chao to prepare for a boarding operation.”

Caitlin had to keep her jaw from openly dropping. The Ban Chao was the expedition’s troop transport. It might be better to say, armored assault ship, since the Ban Chao was designed to survive battles within a star’s photosphere.

Only Jao–only damned Jao lunatics, was the way Gabe Tully had put it–would have designed a ship like the Ban Chao. It probably took a Jao to even conceive of such a ship.

The Ban Chao had been designed and built to withstand ramming impacts that would have crushed the hulls of even Lexington-class battleships. And the ship’s crew and the troops held within its massive frame could take positions in complex harnesses which had been designed and built to keep them alive no matter how great the impact, so long as the hull itself wasn’t breached. The Ban Chao’s engines were the most powerful yet designed and built, and those engines powered shields that were strong enough that Ban Chao could keep a shattered Ekhat ship within her own protective bubble after she rammed it. Otherwise the Ekhat ship would simply be consumed in the hellish environment of a solar photosphere.

In short, the Ban Chao had been designed for the express purpose of boarding Ekhat warships in mid-battle, even within the plasma of a star, which is where most experts expected it to be used. (Only the most visionary (i.e., wild-eyed optimists) considered a ram could be done in open space, given speeds available.) And the reason it had been so designed was because humans insisted on something that would not have been conceived by a Jao–to wit, that their military intelligence was sadly lacking in data concerning not only the Ekhat but, most importantly, the many slave species that the Ekhat used for most of the tasks of crewing their ships. They’d already tried to interrogate an Ekhat captured at the battle of Valeron a couple of years ago, with signal lack of success. The lack of intelligence needed to be made up; the only way to do that was to capture some slaves; and the only way anyone could think to do that was in the middle of a battle.

So, the Ban Chao. But it would not have occurred to Caitlin until now that the assault ship would be used in a battle where the Jao-human-Lleix forces were so obviously outnumbered. And Tully was over there, because that’s where the majority of his troops were, and he had determined that if this very circumstance came about, however low the probabilities might be, he was going to be with the assault group.

Wrot leaned over. “We’re in space, so it is the Fleet Commander’s call, as you humans would put it. But if you didn’t want an aggressive fleet commander, you probably shouldn’t have selected Dannet.” He straightened back up with a touch of what Caitlin decided was smug-repose.

That should have called for a retort, but there wasn’t much she could say to that. Her former mentor Professor Jonathan Kinsey had once commented that, while the analogy had its limits, there were a lot of ways in which the two greatest of the Jao kochan–Pluthrak and Narvo–were analogous to the two greatest city-states of ancient Greece. The Pluthrak being the Athenians, of course, and the Narvo being the Spartans.

The analogy was something of a stretch, especially the one between the Pluthrak and the Athenians. The Spartan analogy, on the other hand . . . was probably much less so. The Narvo were indeed the great warrior kochan of the Jao species, known and respected as such by all the other kochan. They had all the traditional Spartan virtues as well as many of the traditional Spartan limitations.