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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Friday, December 25, 2009 01:12 EST



    Mallu heeded the summons to Spine C for additional training, reporting with Jalta, Kaln, and the rest of his reduced Krant crew. His own position as Gun C-Eleven’s captain was much more interesting than he had first thought. The great kinetic weapons packed immense force and he could see how they might even be more effective in some situations than energy weapons for which the Ekhat would have shields.

    His ribs still ached, but not as much, though a number of postures were still difficult. However, working with humans as he was, postures weren’t required and mostly he didn’t even bother trying. The creatures seemed oblivious to them anyway and their own postures were too chaotic to interpret.

    Jalta was working at the far end on Gun One with no more fuss than if he’d been one of these stub-eared humans. Mallu had been braced for trouble from Kaln, but oddly enough she seemed to be fitting in with her own crew. At least, she had taken a position in the magazine of her gun mount and stayed down there most of the time. As far as he could tell, there had been no more commotion.

    His other Krants were also doing fairly well. He’d only had to discipline three so far, and those for minor infractions. That was fortunate because he could feel the flow of this journey increasing. Something was about to happen and they all had to be ready.

    His gun crew knew what to do far better than he did, in actuality, so at first he observed the other captains as their crews struggled to increase their efficiency, then watched for the same problems with his own personnel. Those under his responsibility were all human, infernally quick and more agile than Jao, but also more easily distracted. He soon realized that part of his job was to keep them focused, and that was not so hard.

    When the drill was completed, Tully called a meeting of the gun captains and read off the stats. “Excellent,” it said. Then Mallu corrected himself mentally — he said. This particular individual was male. He was beginning to be able to reliably tell the genders apart, which seemed important to humans. Males apparently disliked very much being taken for female. The opposite mistake elicited an even more indignant reaction.

    Tully said something in his own language. Most of the gun captains, who were all but one human, chuffed, shook their heads, then dispersed. Tully turned to Mallu and switched to Jao. “We jump next-sun. Everyone is to be on duty at that point.”

    The nap behind Mallu’s ears prickled with dread. Lexington was a new ship, and unless he were mistaken, this would be its first jump, a tricky enough situation even if they weren’t heading into a planetary nebula. The moment swept back over him, three Krant ships emerging in the nebula, but only two surviving as the third miscalculated, jumped too deep in the targeted star, and was crushed and incinerated. Then, before they could orient themselves, his own ship had taken critical damage from the Ekhat even as its remaining fellow Krant vessel was blasted into fiery splinters. He still felt that terrible moment when he knew they were outclassed.

    Tully was watching him closely. “Terra-Captain Dannet is very experienced,” he said. “She came to us from Narvo.”

    Mallu’s ears swiveled. He found himself surprised that a mere human had read him so well. “It is difficult to surrender control to others when one is accustomed to wielding it oneself.”

    “I understand,” Tully said. His lean body was very straight, almost respectful.

    The human and Jao jinau were filtering out of the spine, leaving behind only a small maintenance force to service the guns. His Krant-crew did not follow them, milling about instead, looking to Mallu for direction.

    Kaln approached Tully, which initially alarmed Mallu until he saw that her good ear was indecisive.

    Tully consulted the sheets in his hands, rustling through them as though in search of something. “You were right,” he said finally to the waiting tech. “Gun Mount Six had a fourteen percent increase in efficiency.”

    Kaln glanced at Mallu, her eyes smoldering green.

    “I will recommend the upgrade be applied to all the Lexington’s kinetic guns when we return to Terra,” Tully said. “I will need you to document the process so that it can be implemented wherever appropriate.” He glanced at Mallu, his lips stretched into an unsettling grimace. “Be careful, Krant-Captain. Terra Taif may just try to steal this one from you.” Then he followed the rest of the jinau out of the spine.

    Mallu was baffled. Kaln was not an object which could be stolen. Was that a sly insult? Whatever did the annoying creature mean by such a comment?

    Kaln, however, stared after Tully’s retreating form with an odd hint of longing in her lines.



    Jump Day. That’s what Caitlin called it to herself as she left her quarters to make her way up to the Lexington’s bridge the next morning. Heavens only knew what the Jao were calling it. “Today,” most likely, or simply “now.” They were as unsentimental about such things as it was possible for a species to be and still qualify as sapient. She supposed the Ekhat had bred that quality into them back at the beginning of their uplift. It wouldn’t have done for slave soldiers to waste time mooning about the sadness of extinguishing so much promising life or always wanting time off to commemorate some event.

    She had done her homework on the Lleix as well as possible with the resources at hand and uncovered more records of Jao attacks against Lleix colonies and ships. The Lleix had fought valiantly, extracting a high price for each system yielded. The Jao had been indifferent to their plight, efficiently exterminating them at every turn, noting statistics but little more.

    If the Lleix had gone to earth on a planet concealed in the nebula, they would expect no quarter from Jao and would certainly give none. Any envoys from the Lexington would have to hide Terra’s association with the Jao as long as possible, if they even managed to arrange a first contact. The Lleix were bound to be painfully skittish of alien intrusion.

    What would such a culture be like after all this time? Yesterday, Wrot, having validated her conclusion, had asked her to use her university training in the study of human history under Dr. Kinsey to speculate. The Lleix, if she was right, had been in exile, concealed in this extreme environment for many generations.

    Their society might well have become rigid and highly ritualized. Something like that had happened to the Jews during the Babylonian period, after the destruction of the Second Temple. She could visualize them embracing control over every aspect of everyday life in an effort to give their existence shape under such harsh conditions.

    The Lleix elder trying to convince the Jao to free themselves had been beautiful in its own way, regal and silver-skinned. Would she ever get the chance to talk to one? And if she did, how would she make up for what the Jao had done to them so long ago? She knew full well how deep humanity’s bitterness ran, based upon a much briefer struggle with a far better outcome. The Jao, persecuting them down through the years, must have seemed like evil incarnate to the Lleix.

    All around her, the great ship brimmed with activity as she headed for the command deck. Creating a point locus was said to be intricate, not to mention tricky, and everyone was understandably nervous.

    Figures darted in and out of doorways as she passed, their faces, both Jao and human, focused and intent. Several exited the lift at the end of the corridor as she entered, then grasped the rail, steeling herself. “Command deck,” she told the controls. The cab soared upwards, as always, too damn fast. She sighed and held on.

    When the lift stopped, Tully got on, blue jinau cap tucked under his arm, chuckling. His hair was combed, his uniform spotless. His batman, again, she thought. Bless the man. He deserved a promotion.

    “Okay,” she said as the door closed, “what’s so funny? I could use a good laugh today. I’ve got ravens racketing around in my stomach instead of the proverbial butterflies.”

    He shook his head, unable to wipe the smile off his face. “Caitlin, I’m not sure this would help.”

    “Try me.” She seized the support bar as the lift again raced upwards and even Tully braced himself. Blasted Jao and their cast-iron innards. These contraptions had to be set at least five times as fast as a human elevator. Every time she got on one, she felt like she was on a theme park ride whose main purpose was to frighten the wits out of a person.

    “All right,” he said as they arrived at the command deck. His eyes crinkled at the corners with suppressed merriment. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.”

    They stepped out into controlled confusion. Voices, both human and Jao, rose and fell. Crew darted back and forth from station to station in the bridge’s oddly shaped space with no right angles that satisfied the Jao’s need for “flow” in their architecture. Sensors beeped and blinked and whistled, warning of dangers Caitlin had no wish to know.

    Terra-Captain Dannet glanced over at them in the midst of conferring with an officer. She said nothing, but her angles shifted subtly toward displeasure. She had the affect of a lioness, all muscle and deadly grace mingled with the attitude that any second those within reach could become prey. Just the sight of the former Narvo made Caitlin want to retreat.

    She had stayed out of Dannet’s prickly way up to this point on the mission, but her rank entitled her to be up here during such a momentous event and, attitude or not, she wasn’t going to be faced down.

    “Over here,” Tully said in her ear. She nodded and followed him to a station not currently being manned.

    “Okay,” he said, his voice still low, his green eyes gleaming with amusement. “I just left my company down on Weapons Spine C. They’re on duty in case trouble is waiting on the other side for us, though the turrets themselves are retracted during the jump. I was inspecting the gun mounts and I kept getting jittery rumors from my people about jumps going bad. They’ve heard that ships were found completely inverted with the hull compressed into a solid core and the exterior of the ship on the outside like a gutted corpse. Their crews were in the same condition, skeletons inverted so that they were a bloody mess.”



    Caitlin swayed. “Oh, my God!” She glanced around at the busy command crew, mostly Jao but sprinkled with humans. Lights blinked. Displays flicked from setting to setting. Business as usual. Each crew member seemed focused upon his or her task, apparently unconcerned that they might all be dead in a few minutes.

    “Yeah,” Tully said, “that was my unit’s general reaction. They were pretty spooked, but I’d never heard anything like that the whole time I worked on Aille’s service. So I traced the stories back until I found out that they all originated with Kaln and Jalta. I just checked with Wrot and asked him how likely that kind of accident was to happen.”

    “Well?” She felt her heart hammering. Over at the front of the deck, a Jao navigator was calling off coordinates. Things were in motion. Her palms began to sweat.

    “Wrot told me that they made it up,” Tully said, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “It’s the Jao equivalent of a damned tall tale. We’re dealing with a bunch of Jao hillbillies!”

    She sagged against the wall. “Wrot was sure?”

    Tully nodded. “He said sometimes there is an accident, and a ship is lost during a jump — but then the ship is never heard from again. No one knows what happens to such ships.”

    “So why are the Krants trying to get everyone all upset?” she said, peering over shoulders blocking her view. Dannet was discussing a set of readings with a subordinate. Were they about to jump?

    “It may be their idea of a joke,” Tully said. “Jao do have a sense of humor, but it’s not anything like ours. I’m going to have my guys start telling Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan stories to the Krants and see how that goes over.”

    Caitlin had never heard of “Pecos Bill,” though she was vaguely familiar with the Bunyan mythology. She supposed she’d have to listen in on a few of the stories.

    “First framepoint generator set,” a stocky Jao with a well-marked vai camiti said. “Waiting on response from next in sequence.” Beneath their feet, the ship vibrated like a purring tiger.

    “Come on,” Caitlin said, taking Tully’s arm. The mood of anticipation on the command deck was infectious. She could almost feel the so-called increasing “flow” of the moment herself. “We’re going to miss all the fun.”

    “Yeah,” Tully said. “I can’t wait for the part where we emerge inside the photosphere of a damned star. That’s Christmas and Halloween all jumbled into one terrifying moment.”

    “Second framepoint generator set,” the Jao said calmly, as though they weren’t readying to leap into hell. The vibration kicked up a notch, more like trembling now as though the Lexington were a racehorse confined in the starting gate, about to jump out and gallop down the course.

    Caitlin’s heart hammered. Why hadn’t she stayed in her quarters until things either went properly — or didn’t? At least then she wouldn’t be staring into the barrel of the gun, so to speak. Her clenched fingernails bit into her palms.

    Dannet turned and gave her a long appraising look from the captain’s central station. That slanting Narvo-patterned vai camiti was still off-putting every time she saw it. Caitlin made herself meet the gaze, allowing her lines to indicate only mild-interest.

    “Come closer, Envoy,” Dannet said with a hint of wicked-enjoyment in the cant of her ears. “You will not see the process properly from back there.”

    Caitlin was suddenly certain that she did not want to see any of what was going on, did not in fact want to be here on this untried ship, jumping into what was most assuredly trouble. Ed had been right. She should have stayed home.

    “Thank you, Terra-Captain,” her dry mouth said and her legs carried her closer. She would not disgrace herself, she told herself, fighting to hold onto the shape of mild-interest. Even more important, she would not disgrace humans in this creature’s dancing green-fire eyes.

    Tully sauntered after her, hands in his pockets, though the invitation had not included him.

    “Third framepoint generator set,” the navigator said, gaze trained upon the readings. “Waiting on Four.”

    Now the ship shook as though caught in the riptide of some violent sea. How many generators did it take? Caitlin wasn’t sure, though she’d read a general file on the process several days ago. All useful knowledge seemed to have leaked out of her head in the last few seconds. Sometimes it was four, she thought she’d read, sometimes five?

    “Fourth set!” Even the navigator sounded excited now, and it took a lot to make a Jao show emotion while doing his or her job. They tended to be phlegmatic about such things.

    The viewscreen was filled with scintillating stars, scattered before them like a field of diamonds. The ship rocked as unseen forces acted upon it. Each of the framepoint generators seemed to be pulling the ship in a different direction.

    Caitlin realized she was breathing too fast and tried to slow down before she hyperventilated. It was just a jump, she told herself. Jao did it all the time without turning inside out or getting irretrievably lost. Otherwise they’d never have made it to Earth and caused misery for humans for more than the last twenty years.

    “Fifth set!” the navigator said. The rocking escalated into a frenzied motion that mimicked the bucking of a frightened horse and Caitlin had to catch hold of an empty chair for support before a vacant station. She glanced at Tully, who looked white-faced himself, but still managed to wink at her. He’d thrown his arms around a support pillar.

    “Stand by,” Dannet said calmly, as though the bridge crew was merely about to conduct a staid tea party. The ship’s insistent motion did not seem to affect her at all. Riding it out like an experienced sailor on a ship’s deck in heavy weather, the former Narvo flicked an ear. “You may jump, Navigator Sten.”

    At his station, Sten pushed a lever and the great ship jumped. Caitlin felt her insides fling themselves forward, abandoning where-they-were for sheer in-betweenness, which her senses queasily interpreted as nowhere-at-all. She looked down at her hand holding onto the chair. It seemed almost transparent and yet solidly there, two conflicting states in one. Which was impossible, her stunned mind insisted. She dropped into the chair and huddled over her clenched fists, feeling impossibly thin and altogether ill.

    The bridge crew, both human and Jao, were working, murmuring readings, making adjustments. The bucking had stopped and the ship hummed as it made its way through — what? Caitlin felt as though she were riding a horse over a brick wall. The horse had leaped and was sailing through the air now. The ground was far below and they all had to land sometime, didn’t they?

    Her hands grew more transparent and even the Jao began to show signs of stress, muttering, stiffening their whiskers, flattening ears, darting to another’s stations, arguing quietly but strenuously over settings. The ship began to shake again, gently at first, then more insistently with each passing second.

    Dannet herself prowled the bridge, stopping to correct a human crew member and adjusting settings on that console, then pulling a protesting Jao from his seat and taking his place, handling the controls herself.

    Jumping into a nebula was technically harder somehow. Caitlin remembered that one of the Krant ships had been destroyed in the attempt. But Dannet was one of Narvo’s finest ship captains, a gift to Terra Taif to atone for the crimes of Oppuk. Her skills should be superb. Narvo would never shame itself by providing anything less.

    Ears flattened, Dannet furiously altered settings. The officer she’d displaced protested from the floor and she back-handed him without taking her eyes off the display. That sort of casual violence, which could easily have been cause for legal action in a human military force, was taken for granted by Jao. The junior officer made no further protest. He simply sprawled on the deck, half-dazed.

    The shaking worsened as though the ship were trying to exist in a dozen different places simultaneously. Maybe they were going to turn inside out before it was all over, she thought queasily. How could the Krants have made up such a story anyway? There must have been a grain of truth in it somewhere. Everyone, including the Jao, admitted that their species had little capacity for ollnat.

    Tully’s face had taken on a faint green sheen as he gripped his pillar with both arms. Caitlin’s muscles cramped. Lexington shuddered one last time and then the shaking abruptly ceased. The air altered, becoming more breathable. They were — somewhere.

    Thank God, Caitlin thought. She glanced down at her hands. The skin and bones were definitely all where they should be, at least for now. The screens had gone white, probably because they’d emerged in the photosphere of a blasted star, she thought shakily, and there was nothing to transmit except a searing blaze of solar combustion. She’d seen that for herself once, when one of the Ekhat factions, the Interdict, had traveled to Earth’s system to warn for its own inscrutable reasons of the immanent arrival of the maniac Harmony. That ship had emerged from Sol in a white-hot ball of flaming solar gases, shedding streamers of fiery plasma as it headed outward.

    The Lexington had to look much the same at the moment. Was it just her imagination, or was the hellish heat encasing them actually heating up the bridge? She blotted her suddenly perspiring forehead with a sleeve.

    “Hull temperature receding from critical,” a Jao officer said, his voice neutral, but his whiskers limp with relief.

    The white viewscreens gave way to a swirl of red gas and dust, interspersed with black starry spaces which seemed to somehow have a meaningful shape. The nebula?

    A second later, alarms went off. Caitlin lurched to her feet, gazing around the bridge. Had the heat penetrated a weakness in their never-before-tried shields? Were they about to burn up?

    “Ekhat ships, five of them, Terra-Captain,” one of the bridge crew, a balding human, said. His face had gone pale as watered milk. “Dead ahead.”

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