The Span Of Empire – Snippet 20
Caitlin let the rest of her questions die. There was no sound in the command deck. Everyone was observing the launch.
The penetrator missile started out slowly, as Flue had said it would. There was a blue glow from the aft end, which seemed to fluctuate a bit as it maneuvered toward the planet. Maybe a quarter hour or so went by silently until the missile seemed to stop in one place and hover for a moment. For some reason Caitlyn was reminded of a hummingbird, which brought a smile to her face.
Suddenly the blue glow brightened almost ten-fold, and the missile began moving again. Within seconds it was obviously hurtling along at multiples of its previous speeds. The missile almost disappeared from the external view until the camera adjusted, and the camera on the missile began to show some signs of vibration as it plunged into the atmosphere.
The target dome swelled almost as if it was a ball thrown at Caitlin’s face. Within seconds, it filled the entire frame of view of the missile’s camera.
The missile’s side of the display went dark. Caitlin wrenched her eyes to the external view. She didn’t see the missile penetrate, but she did see the hole made by the missile when it penetrated the dome.
For another couple of seconds nothing happened. Then the dome seemed to jump. Cracks appeared in the dome material, and pieces of it fell inside. A large dust plume blew out of the holes.
It was surreal to watch the destruction in silence. Caitlin kept expecting to hear an earth-shattering kaboom, or a really long roll of thunder, or something. Nothing. Only destruction and upheaval in deafness. The Jao said nothing. Even the humans in the command deck remained silent.
The view screen split into three feeds: one remaining on the dome, and two more providing the same feeds as at first, only with a different missile. The drill was repeated.
This time Caitlin focused on the dome feed, and she was rewarded with a glimpse of the streak of the second missile as it penetrated the dome. As with the first, it punched straight through, followed by a second or two of no visible reaction, and finally the ground jumping under the dome. This time the dome collapsed altogether, and the dust plume was much larger.
Again the view screen reset with the three feeds as Vercingetorix’s third penetrator was launched. Again Caitlin was rewarded with the glimpse of the missile streaking to the impact. But this time, since the dome was gone, when the nuclear charge blew the watchers could see massive amounts of debris tossed into the sky, and now great holes were seen to be opening up beneath the remains of the Ekhat base. Much of the rubble and remnants of structures were collapsing and sliding into the holes.
After a few minutes, the dust plumes and rubble slides had stopped. The Ekhat base looked like nothing much more than a large gravel heap, with an occasional boulder scattered throughout.
One of the humans on the command deck began clapping. He was quickly joined by others. In a moment, they were all standing and clapping and cheering. Including Caitlin. Paybacks for China. Her mind visualized white Ekhat blood dripping from some of the stones and soaking into the dirt of the planet that the Ekhat had sterilized. That didn’t bother her at all.
The Jao, of course, just shook their heads and adopted various postures like disdain-for-foolishness, or what might be expressed as glad-that’s-done. But here and there on the command deck, Caitlin caught glimpses of joy-at-judgment, and Wrot was standing with a blatant sly-enjoyment-at-another’s-doom.
Dannet, of course, was in her usual seemingly effortless neutral. The Fleet Commander had turned and was facing Caitlin, seemingly waiting for Caitlin to notice her. When she caught Caitlin’s eyes, she spoke.
“This task is completed, Director Kralik. What are your directives for our next task?”
At that moment, something crystallized in Caitlin’s mind; something that she realized had been growing for some time.
“Fleet Commander Dannet . . .”
“Yes, Director Kralik?” Dannet had looked away for a moment, but her head swiveled back to face Caitlin. Her eyes were green, but her posture was very neutral. Not even one of her whiskers twitched.
“The fleet will return to Ares Base as soon as any emergency repairs are completed.”
“As you instruct, Director.” Caitlin listened, but found no trace of irony or sarcasm in the fleet commander’s voice. Her angles were now expressing dutiful-compliance; her eyes were fading to black. Caitlin suspected that Dannet may not be happy with the command, but she still respected who had oudh in this mission. Even if it was a human.
The Ban Chao’s captain had brought the great craft to a halt some distance away from where the remnants of the World Harvester tumbled slowly through space. In his harness, Tully was drenched in sweat. He clutched his weapon even though the battle was over, there was no one left to fight, and they were safe–for the moment. Knowing that, though, and actually feeling it down in his marrow were two separate matters. He wasn’t sure his heart rate would ever ease back down to normal.
They had raided a freaking Ekhat Death Star! Or at least, that’s what it felt like. As of yet, he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around that fact.
“Shit!” he said as he flipped his face-shield open. “I don’t want to do that again anytime soon!” The faces of the six he’d lost from his command were burned behind his eyes. He was going to be seeing them in his sleep for months, he was sure.
Tully had been one of the last of the jinau to re-board the ship. Ahead of him he could see the troopers splitting up to head for their quarters, shrugging off their harnesses and starting to peel off parts of their suits. They were good protection, but the suits did get a little hot and gamey after a while.
“Do you know where we’re going next, Colonel?” a gangly youth with shaggy black hair and a private’s single stripe asked. One of his front teeth was broken. Tully cudgeled his memory for the boy’s name.
Willis, he realized, Willis Ciappa, recruited out of the one of the last of the rebel enclaves in the Appalachian Mountains.
“Not yet, Ciappa,” Tully replied. “When I know, you’ll know. We’ll be leaving as soon as some repairs are done, though.”
“What if the Ekhat follow us?” another soldier said, this one a broad-shouldered sandy-haired female built like a truck.
“Frame travel doesn’t work like that,” he said, having had the same worries himself and secured an explanation some time ago. “It doesn’t leave any kind of trail to follow. We would have had to tell them where we were going.”
A nearby sergeant, one of the ones that General Kralik had provided, snorted. “Like that would happen!” Cold Bear, Tully’s mind prompted him with the name. Joe Cold Bear, from North Dakota. He’d been one of Ed Kralik’s original jinau troops, and the general had passed him on to Tully when he gave him his colonel’s eagles.
The Ban Chao shuddered. Tully staggered, regained his balance, then tried to think about anything but the amount of damage they’d taken. “I’m going to check on the prisoners.”
Ciappa shuddered. “They’re a right despicable bunch,” he said. “Serving the Ekhat like that. I’d rather be dead.”
“They never had a choice,” Tully said. “Just like we humans didn’t have a choice once the Jao defeated us. They’re victims, not collaborators.”
“Hard to tell the difference sometimes,” Ciappa muttered.
Tully caught the sergeant’s eye and jerked his head. Cold Bear pushed the private toward their company quarters. “Private, go clean your weapon, go clean your suit, and for God’s sake, go take a shower.”
The sergeant led the protesting trooper away. Tully remembered thinking a lot of things himself about the Jao and the conquest when he was growing up in a rebel camp. Many (though not all) of those things turned out not to be true. Ciappa was just going to have to learn through experience. He’d signed up for this adventure; now he was having to live it.
Tully’s stomach crawled as he made his way through the narrow hallways toward the Holding Area, which had been specially designed for prisoners. Supposedly it was secure enough to contain even an Ekhat, though Tully knew even if they caught one, it would just kill itself the first chance it got if they didn’t drastically restrain it. The one they’d captured in the Valeron boarding action hadn’t lasted long, despite all its limbs being burned off by lasers during the action. They’d gotten it back to Earth, but only barely. Tully hadn’t gotten a straight story yet on how it had died; only some wildly contradictory and usually gory rumors. The freaking Ekhat were crazy enough that it may have eaten itself, for all he knew.
The Ban Chao’s massively armored hull was reportedly compromised in a dozen places, but its highly trained damage control squads were already on it. He heard banging and swearing in external compartments as he moved along. From what he’d heard over the com net, though, the damage was relatively minor, especially considering that they’d rammed a freaking dreadnought!