The Span Of Empire – Snippet 13
Down to one blip now, which seemed to be spinning and swooping randomly, but Caitlin wasn’t able to determine if it was due to damage or intent on the part of the Ekhat. Whether by accident or not, that last ship seemed to be evading a lot of the fire from the battleships. She heard Vaughan muttering rapidly into his microphone, and he was playing the push pads on his station like it was a piano or an accordion.
Suddenly the blip took a careening curve and headed directly for the Vercingetorix. Caitlin sucked in her breath, and Vaughan’s hands stilled on his station’s pads.
“All guns cease firing,” Terra-Captain Uldra ordered.
“Cease firing immediately,” Kaln heard Mallu order. The repeater view screens made it clear the order had come to keep them from firing at their sister ship. They watched as the Ekhat approached the Vercingetorix.
Quarter-tone Ascending’s rage was almost as consuming as the fires that raged in the great dance chamber which the command chamber overlooked. Her voice continued to pulse out her aria of death and destruction; solo, now, since her mate lay dead behind her.
She was splashed with ichor and blood; white from Ninth-flat and several of the youngling Ekhat in the chamber, purple from the many TrÄ«kÄ“ who had been slaughtered. Her mind didn’t hold the concept of an abattoir, but any sane species would have been horrified.
One by one, Quarter-tone Ascending had heard her daughters grow silent. One by one, the echoing voices had dropped from the music, until she alone was left, throwing her defiance and her hate at the strangers.
Locking her legs so that she would not fall, with her only working manipulator claw Quarter-tone Ascending grasped the head of the nearest immature male Ekhat and forced his mind into union with hers. Other species would have called it child rape. For her, it was her last tactic.
The young nameless male stepped forward and took the pilot’s controls from the TrÄ«kÄ“, shifting the course of their dying vessel by main strength to charge the closest of the stranger/enemy vessels.
Quarter-tone Ascending stood behind him, pouring her voice into him, pounding him with the pulses and peaks, urging him on to their mutual immolation.
The command deck of the Lexington was almost silent. Humans and Jao alike watched the view screen. Most of the Jao had slipped into angles of observing-impending-destruction. Fleet Commander Dannet and Terra-Captain Uldra both stood in impeccable gratified-respect, the posture that recognized expected honor. Wrot went beyond that, adopting honorable-recognition, as flow deepened and crested simultaneously.
The blips merged.
Quarter-tone Ascending shrieked in mingled fury and dismay as the stranger/enemy ship moved at seemingly the last moment–not enough to dodge their charge, but enough that the central mass of her ship would miss the other. Only subordinate structures, struts and trusses, made contact, crumpling against the nose of the stranger/enemy and scraping down its side.
The Ekhat ship was left spinning toward a plasma cell. All controls were dead, although the TrÄ«kÄ“ continued to work them frantically, apparently in the belief that their Ekhat masters would produce a miracle.
As her ship was carried downward in the current of the cell, Quarter-tone Ascending lost both her aria and her grip on what passed for sanity among the Ekhat. She began shrieking, tunelessly, swinging her forehand blade around her, completing/slaughtering the remaining Ekhat and those TrÄ«kÄ“ who couldn’t evade her.
Her last vision was of the flood of solar plasma that suddenly burst into the chamber as the ship’s shields failed and the hull materials began to vaporize. The heat of that moment matched the heat of her rage.
And then there was nothing.
Flue Vaughan studied the readouts on his panel, then raised his eyes to the viewer. The solar plasma seriously degraded the accuracy of even the Jao science instruments, but it looked very much like the Vercingetorix was still there.
He glanced over at Caitlin, and saw her smiling. She looked up and said something to Wrot, who nodded his head and shifted his position into something Flue couldn’t read. His command of Jao body language was improving, but still couldn’t be considered more than elementary.
A readout on his panel caught his attention. “Fleet Commander,” he called out. Dannet turned his way, head tilted and ears lowered, which Flue did recognize as an abbreviated form of curt-attention. “Lexington’s A and C gun decks report 77% combat load remaining, E deck has 75%.”
He watched as Dannet absorbed that information. If the other battleships had similar stock levels, that meant that nearly 25% of the fleet’s gunnery ammunition stocks had been used up in a single engagement. That didn’t exactly fill Flue with warm feelings. Dannet’s posture went neutral, and she returned her attention to the view screen without a word.
Flue shrugged, then looked back at his own panel.
Caitlin sat back, limp with relief. They’d done it. Or rather, Fleet Commander Dannet had done it. Six Ekhat ships destroyed with no losses to her own fleet. She looked up at Wrot, and he bent toward her.
“I’d say that was a good day’s work,” she murmured.
Wrot’s whiskers twitched as he shifted to cautious-optimism. “Indeed. The only other instance I can think of where a Jao force won so . . . forcefully was the battle at Valeron.”
Which was where Dannet, then Terra-Captain of the Lexington, had defeated and destroyed five Ekhat ships. Caitlin realized in a new light just how large a gift the Narvo had given Terra taif in the person of Dannet.
“But,” Wrot continued with one of his ubiquitous human phrases, “don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched. If there were this many ships waiting at the sun, who knows what else might be in the system.”
“I didn’t need to hear that,” Caitlin muttered.
“Fleet command: take the ships out. Formation Epsilon Alpha,” Dannet ordered, “Lexington to take point. And take a full load of plasma.”
Flue nodded to himself. Bold moves, but with a certain amount of caution as well. Epsilon Alpha inverted the cone formation, and Dannet had put Lexington in the lead. Which, he had to admit, made sense, since it had the most practiced crew.
He muttered more notes into his microphone. After a moment, he looked over at Wrot and caught his attention. The Jao stepped over to stand by his station.
“What is ‘the flow’ telling you now?”
Wrot considered for a moment, then shrugged–he was one of the best at using human gestures–and said, “Time to move forward.”
“So all the other ship-captains will follow Lexington?”
Wrot gestured toward the view screen. “As you can see.”
Flue looked and could see that the other battleships were indeed moving, following Terra-Captain Uldra’s lead out of the plasma. And he thought he could see hints that the other ships were following them.
“We have got to get a communicator that works in plasma,” he groused. He punched a pad, then said for his notes, “Talk to the sub dudes and the science dudes. Will sonar or something like it work in the solar plasma? Can we use it for pulse codes?”
Descant-at-the-Fourth stepped around the great hall of the ship’s pyramid, waiting impatiently, manipulators absent-mindedly shredding the corpse of a servient who had dared to squeak while she was singing. Since Quarter-tone Ascending’s aria had faded into the music of the sun, she had been directing a pavane between the remaining ships in the system, orchestrating them to coalesce in a dance of seven ships around the massive harvester/purifier that she, as one of the signal voices of all the Complete Harmony factions, had at her personal disposal.
Now she waited for the return of Quarter-tone Ascending’s daughter-group, wanting those tones for the melody. Her mate, Second-Strong-Cadence, maintained the music behind her, riding on top of the chorus of immature Ekhat and servients. Their time of mating would occur soon, the music hinted.
Descant-at-the-Fourth’s head tilted suddenly, and her manipulators squeezed what remained of her servient toy into protoplasmic jelly. A thin whistle issued from her mouth as the harmonies in the system tilted; dissonance obtruded. She watched as an ovoid shape, sheathed in plasma, emerged from the sun. Sharp staccato notes crescendoed and accelerated in her fury as it became obvious that the interlopers had defeated Quarter-tone Ascending.
A new theme emerged, overwhelming Second-Strong-Cadence. Within moments it was echoed back to Descant-at-the-Fourth from the other ships. The pavane wheeled, and began flowing toward the sun.
“Destroy! Unharvest!” Descant-at-the-Fourth sang as more interlopers began to emerge from the solar plasma. “Purify!”
“Cachu!” Flue muttered in his native Welsh as they cleared the last of the plasma veils and the sensors were finally able to provide clear resolution of what lay in store.
“More Ekhat,” he continued, slapping at pads on his console to pull the sensor data into his files. “How ducky.”
He stilled as Dannet lifted her head from where she was studying the sensor details over the shoulder of the lead sensor officer.
“Light attack craft to Epsilon Delta, north and south. Support ships remain at the photosphere transition for further orders.”
Vaughan pulled that into his files, and tried to make sense of the fleet dispositions. He could see no advantage in placing the lighter ships in the offset formation Dannet had just ordered them to. He ground his teeth. “Bloody flow.”