The Span Of Empire – Snippet 46

Chapter 24

Third-Mordent stood in the center of Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s great hall, listening to the antiphonal servient choirs render her latest work, a ricercare inspired by the actions of Seventh-flat during the blade-dance that had left so many Ekhat completed. Unlike Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s usual practice, she had segregated the choirs by species: Anj, TrÄ«kÄ“, and even hard to locate and preserve Huilek, not common in the quadrants controlled by the harmony master’s faction. Two small choirs of each servient species provided strong voicing of the characteristic timbres of each species, which Third-Mordent had used in building the piercing harmonies of the ricercare.

A flicker of motion caught out of the corner of her eye resolved into the presence of Ninth-Minor-Sustained. Third-Mordent immediately went still.

Ninth-Minor-Sustained listened to the ricercare with what appeared to be pleasure, judging from the manner in which her forehand blades exposed their edges at certain moments in the work. The shrill descant of the Anj brought an edge of agony to the work as it was laid atop the staccato chanting of the Huilek. The fundamental structure of the work was declared and determined by the resonant point and counterpoint of the TrÄ«kÄ“ singers. There was an invidious, inexorable, even implacable motion imparted to the music by the cycling of the fundamental theme by the TrÄ«kÄ“ that elevated the work well above a level that an Ekhat of Third-Mordent’s attainments should have reached.

As the work began its third iteration, Ninth-Minor-Sustained intervened with a fluted “Cease.” There was immediate quiet. The choirs were frozen in place, panting. “Disperse,” the harmony master intoned. Within moments, the two Ekhat were alone in the room as the last of the TrÄ«kÄ“ hurtled through a doorway, all six limbs scrabbling to make the turn in the corridor as the door irised shut behind it.

Third-Mordent remained still. Her control was excellent by this point. There was no pressure from instincts or hungers; only alertness and focus as Ninth-Minor-Sustained stalked around her.

The harmony master moved to face Third-Mordent. “Excellent,” she trilled. “You have learned the first lesson of control: do nothing without intent.” That took the form of a semi-toned downward scale.

Ninth-Minor-Sustained looked away from her descendant. “This was interesting,” she sang in a soft soliloquy. “I will remember the choirs.” There was a moment of silence, before the harmony master sang in multi-toned voicing that verged on Dissonance, “Destroy the music.”

Almost that made Third-Mordent lose her posture. Perhaps an eye twitched, or a manipulator quivered for a moment. Ninth-Minor-Sustained whirled and shrieked, “Still!”

The tonal blast affected Third-Mordent’s central nerves, causing jets of pain all along her central nerve trunk. Her vision whited out instantly, and for long moments even her physical sensations were loosened. Gradually all sensations returned to normal, and her eyes cleared. It surprised her that she was still standing in the same position. It would not have astonished her if she had been sprawling on the floor when her perceptions resumed.

Ninth-Minor-Sustained was very close to her, edges of forehand blades exposed. The harmony master’s gaze was very sharp. Third-Mordent returned the gaze in kind.

After a moment Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s blades retreated into their sheathes, and she moved back one step. “Good,” she returned to the soliloquy mode.

Third-Mordent remained silent. At length, the harmony master turned and walked over to the window in the corner, the one that gave a viewpoint into space.

“It is time for you to learn the second lesson of control,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained sang in a pure tone, its simplicity underscoring the import of the lesson. “Never give anything away.” The harmony master looked to Third-Mordent. “Release.”

The younger Ekhat retained her posture for a long moment after Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s command. The harmony master was staring out the window, but Third-Mordent could see her ancestress’ eyes reflected in the window surface, so she knew that she was still under observation herself. Only when there was no doubt in her mind that she would betray no weakness did she move, taking deliberate steps until she stood just to the left of the harmony master. She remained silent, and waited. A long moment passed. Ninth-Minor-Sustained at length made a gesture of approval.

Third-Mordent broke her silence. “Why?”

Nine-Minor-Sustained was, predictably, indirect. “First, never reveal all your skill to anyone. Not in harmony; not in blade-dancing; not in melody. Never.”

Third-Mordent dipped a manipulator in a gesture of understanding.

The harmony master continued with, “Second, never praise anyone not of your faction, your lineage, or under your control. Never.” With another whisper-aria, Ninth-Minor-Sustained sang, “The ricercare was well done indeed, but if I could see Seventh-flat limned in its harmonies, so could others.”

Third-Mordent again fluted, “Why?”

This time Ninth-Minor-Sustained was more direct, responding in dirge mode, “The youngling that began the blade-dancing,” and there was no question who was being referred to, “the one that Seventh-flat completed, was the latest and last of her personal progeny, newly come from the contests of the creche.”

Third-Mordent absorbed that and considered all the implications before responding, “Can Seventh-flat touch you?”

Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s response was, “Not yet.” She turned from the window and left without another note.


The Khûrûsh response came as the Lexington crossed the orbit of Khûr-liyo. Unfortunately, it was not a response that Caitlin wanted to hear.

“Spacecraft launches detected!” a Jao sensor tech called out. “Coming from three locations on the moon. Three, no, more, ten, sixteen, eighteen craft detected.”

“Twelve more detected launching from two bases on the planet,” a human tech called out.

“What propulsion system are they using?” Dannet snapped out.

“Wait, wait,” the Jao tech said. Numbers and characters flashed up on the main view screen. “Nothing like Jao or Ekhat systems.”

“It’s an atomic rocket engine,” the human tech called out. “High thrust, hydrogen fuel, speed and duration of maneuvering limited only by amount of reaction mass.”

Vaughan’s fingers were flying pulling in the sensor reports and at the same time calling up the human files he had a vague recollection of reading while he was in the naval academy. He looked at the readouts. The Khûrûsh craft were already building up a surprising velocity. But the shielding on those things was criminally thin. Granted that the atomic piles in those rocket engines couldn’t be very large, but the radiation being emitted would be lethal in very short order to anyone not behind shields of some kind. They weren’t even as effective as the NERVA designs the humans had never put into use.

“Uldra, take evasive action!” Dannet ordered. “Pool Buntyam, Ban Chao, join on Lexington from north, Arjuna from south.”

“What are you doing?” Caitlin demanded.

Vaughan suppressed a snort. “Bloody obviously buying time,” he muttered as he continued to make notes of what was going on.

The Fleet Commander turned to Director Kralik. “That,” she said, pointing a finger at the main view screen, “is a hostile launch. Those are warcraft, closing on an attack heading. We are getting some maneuvering room until we can see what their plans are, and calling in reinforcements so they can be of use when we need them.”

“You don’t know they’re going to attack,” Caitlin responded.

“Missile launch!” the human tech shouted. Dannet looked sternly at the director, and her body flowed through a sequence of angles Vaughan couldn’t follow. Then she turned away.

Everyone on the command deck turned their eyes to the main view screen, where small slivers of light had detached from the leading group of the ships launched from the moon and were racing ahead toward the Lexington. “Laser decks, fire on the missiles!” Terra-Captain Uldra’s voice snapped that order out immediately.

Caitlin turned to Pyr. “Shut off the automatic broadcast, and for God’s sake start telling them to back off before they get destroyed! Tell them we want to talk, not fight, but we will defend ourselves. Get that out now!”