The Span Of Empire – Snippet 17
“Tully to command: open the front assault doors.”
“Opening doors now,” came the response over the com channel.
Tully felt more than heard the big outer doors opening. “Alpha Company go!” he heard Sato order.
The leading jinau raced down the ramp into the Ekhat ship. Tully and Sergeant Luff followed. Expecting something like the madhouse of the boarding action in the Valeron campaign, he was surprised to see Alpha Company faced with very little resistance. No Ekhat were visible, and only a handful of other life-forms, most of which seemed to have been riddled by the shrapnel generated when the Ban Chao had burst through the hull of their ship. Their spacesuits had irregular holes in them, anyway, and they were leaking bodily fluids of various colors.
Tully looked around while Bravo and Charlie Companies exited the Ban Chao and pushed the perimeter out further. They were in a relatively large open space. There was no clue why it was there or what it was used for, other than the existence of a lot of flat panels strewn around the deck. But there were what appeared to be doorways scattered around the perimeter. He started marking them on his heads-up display, and as soon as the last jinau hit the deck he sent the diagram to the rest of the troops and started barking orders.
“Alpha take the red door, Bravo the green, Charlie the yellow. Throw sensor packs through the blue doors as you go by them so that the troops who stay back can get a heads-up if something is heading that way. Stay in contact, and yell if you need help. One hour out and back, but keep an ear open for the XO or me to call it quits early. Go!”
Flue Vaughan’s head came up as the communication officer said, “Fleet Commander, Ban Chao reports successful ram and penetration of World Harvester hull and entrance of jinau into ship. Minimal damage to ram portion of hull, but remaining hull integrity good.”
He checked the data-stream from the Ban Chao. So far, so good. The damned design actually worked! Now, if Colonel Tully and his jinau assault team can just grab a few prisoners and get off again safely.
Vaughan didn’t know it, but his thoughts were being echoed by others in the command deck, notably Caitlin Kralik and Caewithe Miller.
The harmony had been replaced by shrieking fear. Descant-at-the-Fourth picked herself up from the heap of servients she had landed upon when the whole ship had lurched and rung like a colossal tone bar, chittering with rage. The surviving servients scuttled for cover, adding to the cacophony as they ran.
Second-Strong-Cadence was floundering nearby, all his left legs broken from being snapped by the torque applied in the whiplash of his body as it was caught between two pillars. Their mental bond was broken. She completed him with her forehand blade as she stalked by. His distracting noise ceased after that moment.
She gathered herself, but before she began to attempt to establish a new harmony, to attempt to win back her system, one of the immature Ekhat sang out, “Intruders on the ship! Lower hall! Moving through the passages!”
Descant-at-the-Fourth sang a tone so high, so sharp, so savage that it could have cut glass.
“Death!” she intoned. “Complete them all! Let them be silent in the face of the Complete Harmony!”
She launched herself at the nearest door, which dilated just barely in time to allow her to pass, followed by the four surviving immature Ekhat and as many of the TrÄ«kÄ“ servients as could keep up.
By Tully’s suit sensors, Alpha Company had moved almost half a kilometer. Not in a straight line, of course. They had taken several turns, leaving paint markers and communication links every time. As it turned out, the com links were a necessity, because something in the halls kept the com units from passing the walls.
They had yet to see another living being. It was almost eerie, walking through the oddly proportioned and doorways that followed swooping lines and intersected at something other than right angles. Twice they had dropped off fire teams to cover major intersections and provide some coverage of the advancing company’s back.
“Talk to me, Shan,” Tully murmured into his comm.
“Charlie Company has about a half dozen of some small slave species,” the XO replied. “They don’t want to come quietly, so it’s all the troops can do to keep them controlled even with their limbs tied down.”
“Tell Boatright to pull back,” Tully ordered. “He can leave sensors behind and leave a fire team back up the hall in case something ugly comes that direction, but he needs to get those prisoners back to the ship ASAP.”
The XO passed that order on, then continued his report with, “Bravo Company has no prisoners. But Torg reports that they’ve had several attacks by slaves of more than one type, none of which survived. He said, quote, “This is starting to remind me of Chicago.'”
That last gave Tully pause. Chicago had been the site of the bitterest battle between Jao and humans during the conquest of Earth. The Jao had learned then to hate humans’ inventiveness and improvisational ability with what passed for passion among the stolid folk. If Torg was feeling that kind of vibe…
He looked at his display–49 minutes since they started. “Tell Bravo to return to ship. Same orders as Charlie: leave sensors and a fire team in the hall. I’ll pass the order for Alpha to reverse direction as well.”
“Oh, and Shan? Keep everyone on their toes. We ain’t out of the woods yet.”
Kaln krinnu ava Krant had walked down the gun line in her gun deck and triggered the load process for each of the guns one at a time. They were now loaded, and she was back at her deck commander station. From there she watched the tactical display on her station as the Pool Buntyam engaged the World Harvester. The Krant ship’s lasers were proving to be more powerful than the Ekhat’s, which meant they were doing more damage than they were receiving. Kaln watched the battle, and at one particular point began using her command station to aim the guns.
Once the guns were aimed, she stood loosely, posture neutral, waiting.
There came another point, and she pressed a command button. The twelve guns fired in rapid sequence.
The last gun had no sooner fired than a com signal came through at the station.
“Kaln, what are you doing?” The peremptory demand was from Krant-Captain Mallu, and she had expected it.
“Supporting Ban Chao,” she replied.
“Are you going to do that again?”
The captain said nothing in reply.
Kaln leaned toward the tactical display, posture slowly shifting to anticipation.
The attack came ten minutes after Alpha Company had begun to retrace its steps through the almost-maze of corridors back to their entry point. They were in sight of the second fire team they had detached, ready to pick them up and continue rolling down their path, when what seemed like a horde of Ekhat and other creatures burst out of three small doorways and overran the detachment. There was a flurry of yells over the com band and a flurry of shots, but it was over in a few seconds. The fire team didn’t sell themselves cheaply, surrounding themselves with dead slaves and even an Ekhat, but they went down. The surviving attackers continued on down the corridor toward the main body.
There was no time for orders. The leading jinau troopers dropped to one knee and began shooting. Servients began to drop, but the Ekhat–all too many of them–continued hurtling toward the troops.
“Grenades!” Captain Kobayashi yelled, anticipating Tully by a split-second. Several flash-bang and fragmentation grenades flew from the jinau in the rear.
Having had at least a couple of seconds warning, the jinau were braced and prepared when they were hammered by successive waves of concussion. The attackers were not so fortunate. Tully watched several of the servients literally blown asunder by grenades that landed under their feet. One of the smaller Ekhat was picked up and slammed against the passageway ceiling by another one, and even the largest of the great aliens was staggered by the blasts.