The Span Of Empire – Snippet 26

“If the pathfinder ship emerges when the star is in extreme contraction, they are at substantial risk of emerging in depths of plasma that will overwhelm its shields and destroy it. Similar risks exist if the star’s spherical symmetry is distorted and the ship emerges in a portion of the star that is still contracted.”

The humans in the room had expressions ranging anywhere from worried to appalled. Caitlin didn’t look at Ed; she knew what his concern would be.

“Can you put a quantification on that risk?” Caitlin asked. “Ten percent? Fifty percent? Somewhere in-between?”

Narso looked to Brakan and Matto, then back to Caitlin. “We . . . are uncertain.”

Caitlin sat up straighter. The Lleix elians seldom admitted to less than absolute certainty. That followed right behind their insistence on consensus. To have an elder say this in a public forum indicated there were deep divisions within the Starsifters who had been involved in their discussions.

“So give me the range,” she said.

Narso’s aureole flattened in distress. “We have so little good data,” he began.

“Then give me a guess!” Caitlin snapped.

Narso looked to Matto, who fingered his com pad again. A chart appeared in the holographic projection, obscuring part of the star field.

“The most favorable estimate is a ten percent risk,” Narvo said in a low tone.

“That’s not too bad,” Caitlin began, only to be interrupted by the Lleix elder.

“The least favorable was in excess of thirty percent.”

That almost choked Caitlin. A one-in-three chance of losing each ship? That was a no-go.

“That’s too high a risk.” She looked to Dannet. “How can we reduce that?”

The Fleet Commander gave her a direct gaze, angles sloping into accepting responsibility. “We send a pathfinder ship through. If it survives the trip, it stays in the system for several days making observations, then returns a message ship to the fleet with the observations which allows us to pick the times of least risk to make the jumps.”

“And if it doesn’t survive?”

Dannet’s angles morphed through gratified-respect to aspire-to-be-of-service. “Then we send another pathfinder through.”

That thought caused Caitlin’s stomach to churn. The thought of ordering Jao and humans to such a horrible death was not one she welcomed. But it would work; she admitted that. Sooner or later, a ship would survive and return the needed data.

“Is there another star we can use for the first link in the chain?”

Narso shook his head, something the Lleix had adapted from the humans, much as the Jao had also done.

“No, Director. All other reachable stars lead to routes where the overall risk in the chain of jumps is greater than through this one.”

Caitlin looked down at where her hands rested on the table, one bracing her com pad and one loosely holding a stylus, for all the world as if she were not involved in a discussion involving almost certain death for members of her fleet staff. She took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and felt her nostrils flare as she released it.

“Very well. Continue with the presentation.”

The discussion that followed took the better part of half an hour. Caitlin followed most of it, but still felt a bit at sea as far as knowing which was best. She kicked herself when she realized that the only ones talking at that point were humans and Lleix. The Jao had been silent for some time, and Dannet’s angles were hinting of impatient irritation. And that provided both an answer and some relief. She sat up and tapped the table. All voices stopped; all eyes turned to her.

“Fleet Commander Dannet, have you heard enough?”

“Yes,” Dannet growled.

“Is the flight possible with our current ships?”


“Have you made your decision as to the path to take?”


“Then this part of the discussion is over. Thank you, Elder Narso.”

The Lleix elder continued to stand for a moment, as if not certain what had just happened. Brakan made a slight coughing sound, and the elder inclined his head and resumed his seat.

“Fleet Commander, in the previous meeting Krant-Captain Mallu indicated that a leading ship would have to make the first jump, and it would then serve as an anchor point for the other ships as they made their own jumps.” Caitlin’s voice was calm. She focused her mind on that calmness, as she schooled her body to present considering-choices. It took some effort. “You said a few minutes ago that we would need to send a pathfinder ship. Is that still the preferred approach?”

The ship captains, Jao all, said nothing but looked at Fleet Commander Dannet, whose ears moved to flag resolution as she said, “It is the only approach until the Frame Network can be extended.”

“Then who is the pathfinder?” Caitlin asked. “One of the Lexingtons? Or do we wait for something else?” Her stomach started churning again, and she drummed her fingers on the table, which startled the Lleix present. They abhorred any form of patterned noise, linking it to the Ekhat and their dreaded songs. Caitlin sighed and stilled her fingers, taking up a posture of quiet-receptiveness-to-information.

Some of the Jao in the room looked at her as if she had mouthed nonsense. The rest looked to the fleet commander.

Ban Chao,” Dannet said. “The ram ship design was based on a Jao pathfinder design, but was made larger, tougher, and stronger. Ton for ton, Ban Chao has the strongest hull and the most powerful shields in the fleet, though it is somewhat lighter armed than the battleships.”

Vanta-Captain Ginta krinnu vau Vanta flicked an ear and then sloped his shoulders in recognition-of-duty. His kochan was allied with the great Dano. He would not be seen to shirk a reasonable opportunity to be of use. That would shame both Dano and Vanta. “Yes,” he said, “that does make sense. We will only take minimal crew, though. There is no point in risking trained lives unnecessarily. The assault troops we normally carry should off-load to the other ships.”

“Not happening,” Tully said, his face flushed beneath his tan.

All the Jao at the table glanced sharply at him, their body angles speaking of disbelief and irritation. Ed Kralik stirred beside Caitlin. She looked over at him as he spoke. “Colonel Tully is right,” he said. “We have no idea what the Ban Chao will jump into. We have no idea what military technologies you might encounter. You could be attacked as soon as you come out of the jump, and you won’t have a way out. That being the case, I’d say you should jump loaded for bear.”

Caitlin saw most of the Jao were confused by his metaphor. “You’re saying that Ban Chao should be loaded with every troop and every weapon that we can possibly load aboard her before she jumps, even the jump into this variable star.”