The Span Of Empire – Snippet 23
Into the Dark
The voyage to the system containing Ares Base would take four jumps. Or rather, it was supposed to take four jumps. However, when the fleet finished arriving in the third target system of the jump series, Vercingetorix reported a problem. Caitlin didn’t try to follow the technical discussion of the engineer techs any farther than to figure out that it was a problem with the jump technology, it wasn’t major, but it would take a while to repair and the battleship wasn’t going anywhere until the repair was done.
So the fleet settled into a stable orbit around the planetless sun and waited on the fleet’s techs to get the battleship fixed. As soon that was accomplished, Caitlin summoned Fleet Commander Dannet and the other top officers of the expedition to her ready room.
It was time to admit reality. The expedition had not borne fruit in the fashion hoped for, with the discovery of more technologically able alien allies, so their primary goal was unattained. On the other hand, they had struck a real blow against the Ekhat. Of course, the Ekhat were really going to be pissed now.
Caitlin sighed. Like they hadn’t been pissed before. They’d been destroying sentient species across the galaxy for thousands of years just because they were bat-crazy. She didn’t think it was possible to make them worse.
“How long will it take to make the necessary repairs?” she asked Fleet Commander Dannet.
The big Jao flicked an ear, her jaw angled in faint-concern. “They will be done when they are done,” Dannet said.
She waved a hand at Lieutenant Vaughan, who added, “Preliminary estimate of three days, Director.”
Caitlin let her own angles go to appreciative-of-effort. The four Lleix present gazed at her with their black eyes, but said nothing, clearly unable to perceive the under-message of the moment.
“I see,” she said carefully. “Do we have any word on the prisoners yet?”
“Not much,” Tully said. “Ramt and Lieutenant Bannerji are just now managing to get them to communicate with us. So far, about the only thing they’ve been able to confirm is that the ships we defeated were under control of a faction of the Complete Harmony. Bannerji thinks that it may even be the same faction that uplifted the Jao to sentience so long ago.”
A ripple went through the room at that thought. Jao ears flicked and Jao lines slid into complicated postures.
“I called this meeting because it’s time to reassess our plans.” Caitlin moved on to the main point of the meeting. “The results of our entire exploration program, culminating in the events in our last exploratory jump, have pretty well established that it’s pointless to continue down the Orion arm of this galaxy toward its center. The fact that we ran into an Ekhat world is just one more indication that there are probably no surviving non-Ekhat species on this side of Jao/human space.”
“Certainly not within practical travel distance,” Wrot concurred. “And the possibilities of finding anyone helpful outward from us are almost non-existent.”
There was a long moment of silence. Humans nodded or looked down. Jao shifted through a variety of postures, most ending in variations of waiting-agreement.
“That’s one of the reasons I’ve ordered the fleet back to Ares Base,” Caitlin continued. “Plus we’ve been on the move for months, and after that series of battles, we need to resupply and rearm, if nothing else. One of the things that will also be done while we’re at the base is to determine the fleet’s next course of action, but I’d like some feedback and input from you right now on that thought. I realize that you haven’t had long to think about it, but give me your thoughts, please.”
Caitlin looked around the table. “Any suggestions on a new path forward?” she asked.
Krant-Captain Mallu shifted in his seat, looking thoughtful. “We could travel along the Sagittarius Arm instead,” he said after a moment.
“That would be difficult to initiate,” Fleet Commander Dannet said. “The distance between the two galactic arms is much greater than the distance ships normally jump using the Frame Network.”
Caitlin schooled her body to reveal nothing but anticipation-of-success. “Solutions?”
Mallu flicked an ear, dropping his gaze to hint at modesty. “We can retrace our jump routes back toward Terra until we find a scattering of stars in the gap that will allow us to cross. This method employs a single ship to lead the way by using the Point Locus created by the entire Fleet’s FP generators. After that initial ship makes a successful transit, it serves as the anchor point for the rest of the fleet to cross over.”
Caitlin frowned. It sounded risky. Subsequent discussion followed that theme. No one disagreed that it was conceivable, even feasible. But more than one of the ship captains indicated that the risk of loss would be higher than in their voyages to date.
Matto, the elder and larger of the Lleix Starsifters elian members with the fleet, spoke up. “There are trails of stars between the two arms. Between our records and those of the Jao and Terrans, we can identify the best route. Others will have to make risk decisions after that.”
At the end of the discussion, Tully keyed something into his pad, and looked up. “It’s either that or go home without achieving our objective,” he said.
And Jao did not honor those who tried and failed, Caitlin thought to herself, no matter how great the effort. It was important to all from Terra taif, most especially the humans on this expedition, for Caitlin and the search to do well if they wanted their taif to retain a continuing voice in the leadership of their world.
“All right,” Caitlin said, slipping into the angles of calm-assurance. “We will meet again on this after we return to Ares Base.” She moved to firm-resolution. “In the meantime, we will all study this potential course of action and see if we can find problems with it. It’s better to deal with those before they happen.”
As the others stood and headed for the door, the Lleix blinked at Caitlin with their narrow black eyes. Their necks curved gracefully. Lim of the Terralore elian gazed at her. “If we are to function as requested, we need further unrestricted access to ship’s databanks,” the Lleix said in her fluting voice.
“I thought you already had it,” Caitlin said in surprise.
“No.” Lim said nothing more, twitching a fold of her colorful robes to make them drape even more perfectly.
“I will look into it,” Caitlin said.
The four Lleix left in a single file, trooping solemnly like ducklings headed for a pond, Starsifters elian in the lead.
“What was all that about?” Tully said as the rest left.
“I don’t know,” Caitlin said. “Who would have restricted the Lleix’s access?”
“I did,” Dannet said, rising to her feet.
Caitlin let her neck bend to a subtle indication of inquiry?
“They have been prying further than their needs would seem to require,” Dannet said. “They are outsiders after all with a long history of, admittedly rightfully, distrusting the Jao. There is always the possibility at least one or more of the Lleix expedition personnel wish us and our mission harm.”
Caitlin gazed steadily at Dannet krinnu ava Terra, once of the famed kochan of Narvo. No one who had lived through mad Oppuk’s rule of Earth could ever forget that; to the humans who survived that rule, Narvo’s fame was rather infamy.
Dannet gazed back, her body perfectly still, and for once, perfectly neutral.
“Due to events in Earth’s past, I might have had good reason to wish you harm,” Caitlin said carefully, “but you know I do not.”
“You are human,” Dannet said. “Humans are prey to many logical inconsistencies, but emotional subterfuge is seldom one of your weaknesses. Once you make up your minds, you rarely change them.”
That was a compliment of a sort. Caitlin’s lips twisted into a wry smile. “Give the Lleix unrestricted access again,” she said finally, “but have a digest sent to me every day on what data they mine. I will keep an eye on them myself while the rest of the crew is making themselves of use in more practical ways.”
Dannet nodded, then shifted into the tri-partite compliance-with-command-received.
Repairs were made; more slowly than Caitlin had hoped, but best to get it right–a mistake could cost big later. It took four days, not three, but in the end everything that could be fixed outside of a drydock was taken care of.
Caitlin again was on the command deck when the word came that Vercingetorix was as ready to travel as she was going to be. Dannet looked to her with an abbreviated form of inquiry implied in the tilt of her head and the position of her ears. Caitlin responded with a human nod, which flowed into a simple approval. After all, she thought to herself, nothing said that every posture had to be eloquent and elegant. Sometimes simple was good.
Maybe it was just her imagination, but the build-ups to the jumps during the return hadn’t seemed as trying as the jump had been into the system where they’d eliminated the Ekhat fleet and outpost. There was probably a reason for that, but she didn’t know what it was. One of these days, she decided, she really needed to get at least the high school version of the jump science.
The ship was doing some vibrating, true, and the loud hum had built up. Caitlin watched as Captain Uldra stood behind the technology stations on the command deck, head cocked, either listening to the sounds, or waiting for the flow to complete, or both. Whatever he was waiting for, it apparently arrived because he straightened and said, “You may jump, Navigator Annen.”
There was that same infinite second that Caitlin always felt, where all her senses seemed to be short-circuited and cross-wired, then they dropped back into space. Since Ares base was connected to the Jao Frame Portal network, they didn’t have to emerge from the jump inside a star. That didn’t bother Caitlin at all. It always seemed a bit odd to her to feel relieved that she was now sitting inside a stellar blast furnace.
Moments after Lexington broke into clear space, the sensor officer announced, “Ares system confirmed. Ares Base thirty-seven degrees port from axis. Challenge received from guard fleet.”
“Announce the arrival of the fleet,” Dannet ordered, “and request orbit instructions. Let them know we will proceed when the rest of the fleet arrives.”
Dannet’s ears were flipped back, and there was a hint of displeasure about her posture. Caitlin suspected that it had more to do with having to issue specific detailed orders than anything else. But with human and integrated Jao/human crews, Dannet couldn’t rely on all crew members having wrem-fa muscle memory to know almost instinctively what had to be done.
The fleet commander stood back from the workstations, hands clasped behind her back in a human-influenced waiting position, angles otherwise sharp and clean, letting Terra-Captain Uldra do his job without her interference as the other ships appeared from the corona one by one.
Caitlin moved up beside her and adopted a similar position. After a moment, Dannet spoke in a tone barely loud enough to be heard.
“Is this going to be the end of the exploration expedition?”
Caitlin snorted. “No. To paraphrase a Terran English leader from a few generations back, ‘This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.’ We will be going back out.”
Dannet said nothing for a long while. When she finally replied, she used only one word.