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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Monday, January 4, 2010 19:14 EST



    Pyr approached Jihan as she was working early that morning in the Jaolore Duty Chamber where the main tasks of the elian were carried out. Thin gray sunlight, half obscured by clouds, slanted in through the old house’s tall glass windows. The heat-source was blazing comfortably, though the day was quite chill without. Wind coming off the mountains blasted along the eaves overhead. She should acquire flags to signify the number of residents, she thought, looking up at her young subordinate. One by one, she was seeing after the proprieties.

    “Eldest!” Pyr said, when he’d caught her eye. His hands were dithering in agitation. “Come quickly!”

    The former unassigned was filling out, his aureole brightening, his dull skin gaining a bit of luster. Whether the improvements came of a better diet or his pleasure in finally being accepted by an elian, she thought he looked almost presentable these days. She straightened, then turned away from the viewer where she’d been going through yet another cache of fragile ancient records, this lot from the Historykeepers. “Yes?”

    “A representative of the Starwarders is here to see you!” Pyr’s meager gray aureole stood on end. “She says there is reason for haste!”

    Jihan adjusted her new robes with their simple but tasteful design, the outline of a Jao ship. Jaolore might be only a small elian, but she would conduct their affairs with decorum. Satisfied that she would not shame her associates, few though they were, she followed Pyr into the Application Chamber.

    The spacious room had been swept clean, the wooden floor polished by industrious servants acquired from the dochaya. It smelled pleasantly of herb-scented oils, though as yet there were only two scavenged benches for seating. A female of middle height looked up from contemplating the barren gardens through the window. Outside, a few flakes of snow drifted out of increasingly leaden clouds. The sunlight was rapidly being occluded.

    “Greetings… Eldest,” the visitor said, as though the honorific passed her lips with difficulty, and settled on one of their battered benches with exaggerated care.

    “You honor us,” Jihan said, taking the seat across from her and wondering what could be so important as to bring a Starwarder to Jaolore. Surely they had enough responsibility patrolling the system during these troubled times to keep them busy. “Shall I call for sustenance?”

    “I am Hadata,” the newcomer said with indecent haste, then glanced at Pyr whose mouth gaped at the breach of protocol. She glanced at him. “Do not presume to judge me, child!” Her expression darkened as she turned back to Jihan. “However did you come to accept such an unpromising creature? His skin is positively gray! Surely even the dochaya could provide better.” She waved a hand when Jihan opened her mouth to protest. “No, no, it does not matter, and the situation is far too dire to be remediated by having him scrounge up a bit of biscuit.”

    Off to one side, Pyr had gone stiff with shame. Anger suffused her, but no matter what had happened among the Starsifters, Sayr had never once given way to crudely raising his voice, much less to graceless shouting. She would conduct herself with the same propriety.

    “We do not require service,” Jihan told the youth when she was sure of her voice. “You may go.” Pyr lowered his head and bolted from the room.

    “That was badly done,” Jihan said as soon as he was gone. “We are a new elian, but I have never heard it said that outsiders may criticize the choices of an Eldest.”

    “You wish to speak of proprieties?” Hadata’s magnificently upswept black eyes regarded the Jaolore shrewdly, and in them, Jihan saw again how badly she had behaved up on the mountain, her disgraceful breaking of sensho. By now, everyone in the entire colony knew what she had done. That brash moment would shadow all of her days. She might be an Eldest now, at least in name, but her achievement of the rank was tainted. Shame tingled up through her face, dried her mouth, flattened her aureole.

    “Never mind,” the Starwarder said abruptly, gazing out the window again, plainly seeking to alter the course of the conversation. “Such matters pale in light of current troubles.”

    Her visitor’s manner stilled. She closed her eyes, then opened them again, and it was as though another, more practical, Starwarder had entered the chamber and now gazed out at her. “As a former Starsifter, you have ship training. Therefore, we petition Jaolore to grant us your service in this crisis.” The Starwarder’s fingers twitched an errant fold in her robes back into place. Her expression was bleak. “We have been maintaining a presence in orbit around Valeron since the battle. Yesterday, we detected an incursion into our space, vessels entering our system through a point locus in the outer layers of the sun, as is necessary when journeying between star systems.”

    Framepoint travel. Jihan had read of such, both in the course of her recent research and during her Starsifter training, though it had been many generations since the Lleix had dared to travel in such a bold manner. “Is it the Jao?” Her aureole stood on end.

    “Child, no one believes that nonsense you were spouting up on the mountain.” The Starwarder rose, arranging her robes into proper folds with great care. Her hands were shaking. “It is the great devils, themselves, the Ekhat!”

    Jihan found it suddenly difficult to breathe. Her mind struggled to think and she felt ill. This was too soon! The colony was not yet ready to protect itself or flee. “Then — it is Ekhatlore that you want, and Weaponscrafters.”

    “They have been alerted, but several Starsifters have already come forward to help crew Starwarder ships, and Sayr suggested that you be recruited,” Hadata said. “You have been trained to operate the Starsifters’ vessel and data stations, and we have grown too few. We cannot adequately staff our remaining ships, so our Eldest asks that you help crew the next ship to be launched.”

    The Starsifters’ vessel had been ancient and small, meant only for the gathering of data and retrieval of minute portions of debris for analysis. Piloting it had been one thing, traveling upon one of the Starwarders’ ships was bound to be quite another. Jihan found herself trembling. “Is it your intention to attack these ships?” If so, they would die even sooner than their fellows upon the planet.

    “The Ekhat have not assumed orbit around our world yet,” Hadata said. “Thus far we are only observing their actions so that we can relay information back to the Hall of Decision. It is possible that they might pass by, as they did once before, though not probable.”

    “I see,” Jihan said, trying to gather the shreds of her disarrayed thoughts. So much needed to be done! How would she ever fulfill so many responsibilities?

    “The few remaining mass transports are being readied,” Hadata said. “Representatives of each elian will be sent on them to another system, if the Ekhat allow us enough time. You should choose one among you for that honor.”

    It would have to be Kajin, she thought numbly. Poor untutored Pyr would perish from embarrassment to be thrust so amongst his betters, and Kajin possessed skills from his Ekhatlore training which should be preserved. “When will he need to report?”

    “Word will be sent,” Hadata said, turning back to the windows and the worsening snow outside. The pale flakes were beginning to accumulate and obscure the abandoned gardens. “For now, you and I must make haste.”

    Jihan excused herself and went to find Pyr, who turned up in the communal kitchen, abjectly scrubbing the floor. “You must dispatch me back to the dochaya,” he said without looking up, when she entered the homey room with its smells of herbs and simmering blueleaf stew. “I have no wish to shame Jaolore further.”

    One of the servants, modestly clad in a gray shift, glanced at the two of them from the larder, then slipped out of the room.

    “You do not shame us,” Jihan said when they were alone. “I forbid you to take any notice of what was said back there. Her remarks were based solely upon your appearance, which has no bearing upon the quality of your work here.”

    He sat back on his heels, still not raising his eyes. His fingers clutched the damp rag to his scrawny chest.

    “Tell Kajin that he has been chosen to represent Jaolore in the exodus and he is to ready himself for departure,” Jihan said to Pyr, “then keep up your studies until I return.”

    If she ever returned, she thought, then went back to accompany Hadata out of the Application Chamber into the morning’s frost-ridden air. That was by no means certain.



    Fortunately, her meager piloting skills were not required on the Starwarders’ patched ship. Hadata took the pilot’s seat and Jihan found herself relegated to one of four unoccupied data stations. She was surprised to find the vessel little bigger than the Starsifters’ only functioning vehicle and in no better operating condition. Every aspect of the ship was worn and cobbled-together. The first data station she tried to activate no longer worked at all.

    And the Starwarders had not exaggerated when they said they lacked trained crew. Only two other Starwarders were on board, so that less than half the ship’s functioning consoles were manned, even with the addition of Jihan and Lliant, a sturdy male recruited from Ekhatlore to employ his expertise. Even in this crisis, he had taken the time to groom himself, his eyes heavily outlined in vahl, his robes freshly scented with herbs and carefully draped, his silver skin gleaming, obviously just oiled.



    The Ekhatlore did not greet her when she came on board, only looked away and feigned preoccupation with buckling his harness, despite the fact that Jihan was an Eldest, technically outranking him and due at least minimum courtesies. Everyone knows of my untoward behavior, Jihan thought, gazing at his lowered head, then resolved to put the shameful past behind her. It was not what she had done before — and she had been right that day, however much she had flaunted protocol — it was what she would do from now on that mattered.

    She was apparently the last to board. Hadata ran through the preflight checks, and then, without warning, the little ship lifted, the ascent much rougher than any launch Jihan had experienced with the Starsifters. She was thrown against the restraining harness repeatedly until her chest ached and she had to gasp for breath. The noise was overwhelming, louder than a hundred storm winds screaming down from the mountains. She closed her eyes and endured until the engines’ roar eased, then fought nausea until the artificial gravity clicked on. At that point, she was finally able to turn her attention to the data station as the ship assumed orbit.

    Via a real-time view, Valeron swam far below, a green and gray ball obscured by clouds. From this vantage, she thought, the colony did not seem so exposed. After all, it occupied just one small location, tucked at the foot of towering mountains. That was the only such spot her kind occupied on the entire world. Might not the Ekhat overlook them?

    But their ancient enemies had not missed the Lleix the last time the Ekhat had broached the system, when the most recent battle had taken place. It must be obvious that they had gone to ground here. The devils would search until they located her people. Or, more likely, they would simply render all of Valeron uninhabitable with a massive plasma bombardment. The records were full of such loathsome tactics. Apparently the Ekhat did not value planets capable of sustaining life, precious and rare though they were. The monsters wished only to be rid of the “taint” of lower life-forms so that they could rule alone in their increasingly pure and perfect universe.

    Hadata crossed the tiny control deck to alter the settings on one of Jihan’s monitors. “There,” she said, pointing as the new readings came up. “Do you see?”

    Five hideous shapes appeared, characteristic of the Ekhat disdain for beauty in form. No one would ever mistake one of their awkward looking ships for anything else.

    Lliant abandoned his station and peered over their shoulders. “Blast us all,” he said softly. His black eyes glittered with anger. “It really is them.”

    Jihan realized she also had been hoping the Starwarders were wrong, or the Ekhat had already gone, but they were here. Last-of-Days might well be in progress.

    She punched in a vector assessment on the closest ship as she had been trained to do when retrieving debris for the Starsifters. The numbers came back, chilling. The Ekhat were on a course heading directly for Valeron. She turned to Hadata who was monitoring a station on the other side. “They are coming.”

    Hadata reached over and checked the readings for herself. “Eldest-of-Us-All!” Her eyes widened. “They have held their position steady out there until now. Is it just the one or all of them?”

    Jihan ran more numbers. Each time, the results were the same. “All five ships approach,” she said, though her throat had trouble producing the words. Lliant sank back into his seat with a muffled curse. Jihan looked at the four of them, the three Starwarders and the Ekhatlore. “What shall we do?”

    “What little we can,” Hadata said, and went to transmit their findings back to the Starwarders’ elian-house.

    Jihan watched the readings with a terrible fascination. According to numerous historical accounts, the monsters were obsessed with rhythmic noise, which they called “music.” Were they singing one of their dreadful songs even now as they approached, intent on destroying what was left of the Lleix? No wonder her kind considered patterned noise of any kind an abomination when it inspired such genocidal mania.

    She continued to monitor their dreadful progress until, across the cabin, Lliant pushed back from his console. “Another ship!”

    Jihan’s blood dried to powder in her veins. As if five of the hulking monsters were not enough to destroy every house and individual on the planet! “I still have readings on only five,” she said, her fingers flying over the uncooperative controls as she widened search parameters. “Where do you see it?”

    “Quadrant zero in the photosphere of the sun,” Lliant said. “It is emerging through the system’s point locus.”

    Hadata glanced back at them, aureole limp with disbelief. “Another Ekhat vessel?”

    “Probably,” Lliant said, his shoulders hunched as if against an expected blow. “It is too soon to tell.”

    Who else could it be, though, Jihan asked herself, except the Jao? Who were no better than Ekhat.

    The emerging ship shed streamers of fiery plasma and for a moment a roundness was visible, then was obscured again by the fierce bright whiteness. Jihan blinked. “That was not an Ekhat ship,” she said, evaluating the stats as they came back to her. “The shape was wrong and it is positively huge.”

    “You are being misled by the enveloping plasma ball,” Lliant said, his eyes intent upon his own screens. “It always distorts initial readings when the Ekhat jump into a system.”

    Lliant was an Ekhatlore with years of study completed since being accepted by his highly regarded elian. All reason dictated that an experienced expert must understand the situation better than Jihan, yet she knew what she had seen and it had been nothing like the long spindles, angular gantries, and inverted tetrahedrons of an Ekhat ship.

    The white ball of solar fire separated fully from the photosphere and shed additional plasma. The dark shape was momentarily visible against the brilliance of the sun again. It was not angular and deceptively fragile, crisscrossed with girders, but almost round and solid with long protrusions. It is not the Ekhat, she told herself, but refrained from speaking the thought aloud. Ekhatlore held sensho in this situation. She would not shame herself by claiming to know more than Lliant did.

    Plasma closed around the vessel again so that it was occluded. Lliant returned to his own data station and studied the figures coming in. His aureole stiffened. “It is very large,” he murmured, “massing far more than any Ekhat ship ever detected according to the Ekhatlore archives.”

    But it wasn’t the Jao either, she thought. She knew the sleek lines of their ships too from her research since forming Jaolore, and there were no records of any of this size. “Someone else participated in the last battle,” she said hesitantly. “I thought from the readings it was the Jao, but whoever it was, they fired upon the Ekhat ship, not us.”

    Hadata and Lliant, along with the two Starwarder crew members on the other side of the cabin, stared at her. “Perhaps this ship belongs to a species entirely unknown to us,” she said. “The Ekhat must have many enemies. This could be one of them.”

    “No,” Lliant said. “The Ekhat will not tolerate any resistance. They destroy everyone they come in contact with. All their enemies are dead.”

    Plasma exploded off the newcomer and that incredible shape was visible again. And the ship was already maneuvering, coming about, readying itself for — what? Excitement mingled with dread thrummed through her.

    She checked the vectors of the Ekhat ships again. “The Ekhat are turning back,” she said.

    “They are going to engage the new vessel,” Hadata said.

    “Then they must not be Ekhat,” Jihan said. “They are someone else, highly advanced, by the size of that ship, another intelligent species.”

    “They could simply be another Ekhat faction,” cautioned Hadata. “Although I think that unlikely, given the radically different ship design.”

    “Even if you are right and they fight the Ekhat,” Lliant said sourly, “that does not mean they will win. And if they do survive, that does not mean they will befriend the Lleix.”

    Remember the Jao and what they did, Jihan told herself. Whoever these new creatures were, they might battle the Ekhat simply to have the pleasure of exterminating the Lleix themselves. Just because they were not the Ekhat did not necessarily mean they would be friendly.

    The last of the white-hot plasma streamed from the huge ship and Jihan focused her instruments on those strange flat projections all around its hull.

    “Bizarre design,” Lliant muttered as his fingers flew over his station’s controls. “Is that part of its propulsion configuration?”

    Then a series of energy signatures flared along the protrusions. Jihan ran a hasty diagnostic. “No,” she said. “I think they might be weapons platforms.”

    “Surely not,” Hadata said. The Starwarder abandoned her seat again to peer at Jihan’s screens. Her aureole wilted. “There are far too many.”

    Brightness blazed. One of the Ekhat ships suddenly changed vectors as it took some kind of hit.

    The battle was engaged.

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