The Span Of Empire – Snippet 11

One of those virtues, Caitlin reminded herself, was that the Narvo won most of their battles.

She smiled herself, then. She wished she could have mentioned that to Gabe Tully. He might find it a bit of a comfort at the moment.

Probably not, though.


“Crazy fucking Jao,” muttered Gabe Tully. The mutter was loud enough that several of the Jao assault troops gathered in the small assembly chamber assumed postures of amusement, some of them combined with feigned-indignation.

The postures were crude, of course. These were rifle carriers from lower rank kochan, not sophisticated scions of Pluthrak, Narvo, or Hij. Many of them were from Krant kochan, which made them the Jao equivalent of hillbillies. The rest were now part of Terra taif, but had their origins mostly in the lesser kochans affiliated with Narvo or Dano.

Tully ignored them as First Sergeant Luff and a couple of senior Jao turned postures to the troops that squelched the mirth. Even though Luff was not Jao and didn’t pretend to know any of what he considered the effete body-language of the upper echelon Jao, none of the troops had trouble reading the angles of his body. Tully wondered what the Jao equivalent for make-my-day was.

He turned to Lt. Vikram Bannerji. His newly assigned intelligence officer was looking alert and raring to go. Tully wasn’t surprised. He’d already come to the conclusion that Bannerji was a geek in uniform, and like all geeks he’d ever known, had bizarre enthusiasms. The sort of people who looked forward eagerly to playing games that sane and normal people would find either boring or incomprehensible

In Bannerji’s case, the bizarre enthusiasm was for all things Ekhat. Where someone like Tully himself–sane, normal–saw only crazed killers, someone like Bannerji saw fascinating subtleties and complexities. Of course, Gabe had thought to himself, Bannerji was also someone who thought all the cultural ins and outs of Hindu society, including the remnants of the caste system, were logical, coherent, and sensible. Go figure.

Bannerji was an upper-crust Indian, born in Mumbai, educated in Oxford. If it weren’t that the lieutenant’s voice carried just a touch of the melodious tones of his native land, Tully could have closed his eyes and almost believed he was listening to the poshest of posh Brits.

“So what can you tell me, Lieutenant?” Tully asked. He nodded toward the big screen at the far end of the assembly chamber, which depicted the same images that were coming into the control rooms of the Lexington and the Ban Chao and every other warship in the fleet. You could say this in favor of the Jao–they weren’t given to stupid security fetishes the way human officials so often were. They saw no reason that the soldiers who’d be doing the fighting shouldn’t get all the information they might need.

“Which faction are we going to be dealing with? Can you tell yet? And if so, what difference is it likely to make in tactical terms? If any?”

Bannerji got that look on his face that Tully was coming to dread. God forbid a geek should give a simple answer to a simple question.

“Well… Until we get a better look at the ships, I can’t tell anything for sure, Colonel. But once I can–”

Gabe cocked a skeptical eyebrow. Bannerji shook his head. “Oh, sure, Colonel, all the factions have their own variations on ship design. Major factions, anyway. Not all of the sub-factions and splinter groups do, though.”

Gabe rolled his eyes. “Sub-factions. Splinter groups. How do you parse the difference with a pack of homicidal maniacs?”

Bannerji grinned, white teeth contrasting sharply with his dark face. He turned his head and gestured at a Lleix standing a few meters away. “We ought to bring Ramt into this.”

The Lleix was rather young, gauging by her height. Ramt glided forward with the sort of ease and grace that Tully had come to recognize as a sign that she was affiliated with one of the long-established elian. He was a little surprised. As a rule, the Lleix who’d been willing to join the expedition came from the newer elian created by dochaya members.

“Ramt’s from Ehkatlore,” Bannerji explained. He got a wry little smile on his face. “The only one I could sweet-talk into coming along. She’s okay, though, for a nob.”

Nob was a slang term for those Lleix who belonged to the elite elian, as the Lleix themselves ranked these things. Only humans used the expression, though.

Bannerji repeated the question. Thankfully, he didn’t do it in Lleix, as he often did. Trying to improve my command of the language, he’d say. Never mind that the Lleix were a hundred times better linguists than humans or Jao would ever be. As far as Tully was concerned, for a human to take the time and effort to learn Lleix was just pointless. Well… being fair, there was no other way to read Lleix texts.

If you were so inclined. Which Tully certainly was not.

After she heard the question, Ramt turned to face Tully and said: “For our purposes, Colonel, it will make a big difference if you want to capture slaves.”

“How so?” Tully asked

“There are four main factions of the Ekhat: Interdict, Melody, True Harmony, and Complete Harmony, all of which are committed to the purpose of the creation or attainment of something called the Melody. They all believe that the Melody must be, can only be, created by Ekhat.”

Ramt held up a digit, in mimicry of human fingers. “The Interdict believes that work cannot even begin on the Melody until the universe has been purified of all other life forms. They use no slaves of any kind.”

She spoke in fluent, accentless English–with just a slight touch of a drawl. If you were listening to a recording of her voice, about the only way you might be able to guess the speaker wasn’t a native born-and-bred Oklahoman or Texan was because the diction was formal rather than colloquial. That wasn’t because Lleix couldn’t speak idiomatic and slang English; it was because such informality was foreign to their nature.

Another digit was raised. “The Melody faction believes that the work can begin before the purification is complete, but that only the Ekhat can do anything even remotely connected to the work. Very few of the Melody sub-factions use slaves, and the ones that do only use borderline sentient species for very specific tasks.”

The digit count was now three. “True Harmony faction goes beyond the Melody in believing that slaves can be used for any task for which they are of use, except for anything that involves directly crafting the Melody. They harvest many species in their campaigns.”

Ramt raised the fourth and final digit. “The Complete Harmony faction stands at the opposite end of the Ekhat spectrum from the Interdict. They are beyond even the True Harmony in their belief that not only can the Melody be created now, but that even non-Ekhat species can assist in its creation. And Jao records,” she said as her aureole elevated, “as well as surviving Lleix records, indicate just how well they can move their slaves to adopt the Ekhat goals and beliefs. The Jao were their product, after all.”

Ramt lowered and joined her hands before her. “If we are facing the Interdict or Melody factions–any of their many branches, it makes no difference in this regard–I would recommend that you make no attempt to board one of their craft. The chances of finding slaves are slim. And even though the Melody do use slave species, they kill their slaves so quickly than none of them will know much of anything beyond their own narrow specialization. It would be a lot of risk for no benefit.”

“I’ll take that under advisement, as I once heard someone say,” Tully responded. “Thanks.”

Tully headed for the nearest lift to the command deck. He needed to share this with Vanta-Captain Ginta. As for Ramt’s advice… Tully snorted. He would be delighted to recommend to Fleet Commander Dannet that they forego boarding an Ekhat ship if it turned out to be Interdict or Melody. Fat lot of good it would do him. She pretty much set the standard for crazy fucking Jao, as far as he was concerned.


Caitlin shrank back in her chair. The view in the display changed as the Lexington pulled back behind the curtains of plasma, edges starting to fuzz out as the ions swirled around the ship. But it looked as if the blips representing the Ekhat ships were actually growing larger. Six of them, rushing after the Lexington into a trap framed by her three sister ships.

She had been along for the ride when Dannet had captained this same ship in a solo action that had ended up destroying five ships from the Melody faction. She wasn’t particularly afraid now; the odds, after all, were noticeably better this time around. But it was still battle, and she couldn’t help remembering the quote Ed had recited after she tried to describe the events of that first combat: “Battle is an orgy of disorder.” He credited it to someone named Patton. One of these days she’d need to read up on him.

He’d told her one other maxim in that same conversation: “No plan of battle survives contact with the enemy. That’s why he’s called the enemy.”

So Caitlin pulled her knees up to her chest in the Jao-sized seat and wrapped her arms around them, closing her teeth on the questions she wanted to ask. Now was not the time to be distracting any of the command center personnel.

She could see Wrot out of the corner of her eye, standing in a relaxed waiting-for-an-expected-conclusion posture. Well, that was almost what it was. His whiskers were just a bit too forward in position, adding a hint of boredom to the picture.

Caitlin smiled, and relaxed a bit more.