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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Friday, January 8, 2010 19:49 EST



    Whatever Terra-Captain Dannet had expected to find when the Lexington emerged from the point locus, Tully didn’t think it was five Ekhat warships. Adrenaline exploded through his veins as an apparently unruffled Dannet ordered Navigation to plan a withdrawal back into the star’s photosphere, then directed Spines C through E to fire as soon as they acquired targets.

    Tully darted into the lift, glancing one last time over his shoulder at Caitlin Kralik. She had hastily surrendered her seat to the working bridge crew the second the situation made itself clear, and was now standing beside a support column. Her hands were clenched, her eyes trained on the terrible sight on the viewscreen. The doors closed and the lift raced downwards, leaving his stomach several levels behind.

    His unit was already in action by the time he reached his post in Spine C. They were loading sabot rounds into the huge guns, as they had diligently practiced, and setting targets with the fire control radar. They’d already started firing. The boom of the great cannons was deafening in the confined space. He grabbed a set of noise dampening headphones from the rack by the bulkhead hatch, then turned on his mike. “Report!”

    “We’re concentrating fire on the two closest hostiles, sir,” Caewithe Miller’s voice came over the headphones. “Do you have additional orders?”

    “No. Carry on.” He slid into the seat before the central monitoring station and strapped himself in. There were no visible fumes, but there was still an oily reek in the air, even with the air conditioners working full bore.

    On the screen, one of the Ekhat ships seemed to vibrate as it took one hit after another. Tully knew what was happening aboard that enemy ship. Even the big sabot rounds fired by a 500mm gun weren’t massive enough to actually jolt the Ekhat vessel. Instead, they’d be punching through the hull and turning the interior into a fiery charnelhouse. The jittery motion of the enemy vessel was actually a byproduct of internal explosions, as the many flammable substances aboard the enemy ship ignited.

    The Ekhat were firing back with laser weapons, but seemed to be retreating. Then Tully realized it was actually the Lexington retreating — deeper into the photosphere, where the enemy’s lasers would be almost completely ineffective. For all her aloofness, that Dannet was a clever rascal. He’d never thought to be grateful for a sly Narvo, but he surely was today.

    Two of the Ekhat ships accelerated after them, growing noticeably larger in the viewer again. “What are they trying to do?” he muttered, calculating vector assessments as the massive guns boomed and boomed.

    “Stand down!” a voice came over the command channel from the bridge. “Lexington is maneuvering to come about. Spine C’s vector will be marginal.”

    “Cease fire!” Tully said and the guns on their deck fell silent. Sweat rolled down his neck and soaked into his collar, so that he was both hot and chilled. He could feel vibration relayed throughout the ship, though, as another weapons deck took up the firing pattern as they now had more effective trajectories. Probably Spines E or G, or both.

    Over at Gun Eleven, Mallu pulled off his ear-protectors. The Jao’s dark-bay body was still, frozen in a posture that Tully felt he ought to recognize, but didn’t. His thoughts were chasing one another around in edgy circles and his bones still rang from cannon fire. He removed his own headset, unbuckled the safety harness, and trotted over to the Krant-Captain.

    “I do not understand,” he said to the Jao, who had logged far more space combat than anyone on his team. “Why are they following us into the star? Our kinetic weapons will still be effective at that depth, but their lasers won’t work inside the photosphere.”

    “They will try to force us too deep,” Mallu said, “hoping that we will be swept down into the supergranular cells where the pressure and temperature is too high to withstand.”

    “Oh.” Tully remembered reading the accounts of Terra’s famous Battle of the Framepoint. Several of Earth’s cobbled-together ships had been lost that way. He swore under his breath, making Mallu give him a sharp look. He didn’t care. This was utterly bat-crazy, traveling through suns and then fighting battles on the naked edge of destruction.

    “Spines B, D, F, and H, stand down,” Dannet’s voice said over the P.A. “We have reentered the photosphere. Spines A, C, E, and G, fire when you have acquired targets.”

    Mallu put his headgear back on and Tully followed suit. The gun teams resumed their positions. Lieutenant Miller was trotting down the line, overseeing the work.

    The great cannons started firing again. By then, Tully had returned to his supervisory station, wishing he were down in one of the magazines, loading and loading, doing something physical and useful. He felt like a blasted fifth wheel up here, keeping an eye on the process when everyone else was doing all the work. And, face it, he longed to have an active hand in blowing those Ekhat bastards into atoms. He flat wanted to kill something!

    He dropped into his seat, refastened the harness, and studied the screen. The two Ekhat ships were still closing. Fire control on all weapons decks that could be brought to bear was concentrating now on the closest. The awkward looking vessel took hit after hit, and he saw explosions around the periphery. Shapes were blown out of the ship by venting gas. Some of them looked like bodies, though the carcasses were much smaller than the Ekhat he remembered from that harrowing expedition two years ago. But it was hard to tell, because they were incinerated so quickly. They’d re-entered the photosphere and nothing material was going to survive outside of a ship’s shielding for more than a few seconds. Soon enough, as they plunged deeper into the star, that would become milliseconds.

    Not only were the great guns doing their job, but the Ekhat were obviously having trouble realizing their effectiveness and adjusting tactics to compensate. Then the targeted ship suddenly disintegrated. Its structural integrity had become too compromised by the accumulated effect of the sabot rounds. Hundreds of them would have smashed into the vessel by now.

    Once a ship started to give way inside a star’s photosphere, the end was astonishingly quick. The star’s own nuclear fury completed the destruction in what seemed like no more than an eyeblink.

    Cheers went up all along the firing line. Human cheers, not Jao. The Jao weren’t given to useless demonstrations of emotion.

    “Stay focused, people!” Tully called at them. “Target that second ship! We’re not done yet by a long shot!”

    The second ship rushed toward them.



    This was supposed to be a diplomatic mission, Caitlin kept telling herself over and over as the Lexington’s bridge seethed with action. And, if things had gone according to Ronz’s plan, she would have known what to do. She, who had never even fired a Terran handgun, had no place in this harried battle. No doubt, Terra-Captain Dannet would prefer her to leave, thereby eliminating a potential distraction. But Caitlin could not bring herself to bury her head in her snug cabin while the ship’s crew fought to survive.

    That would seem cowardly, she thought, and she was not only her father’s daughter, but Ed’s wife. She could not behave like a scared little mouse during this crisis and then expect to maintain the crew’s respect afterward, not to mention her own.

    A human male called for Dannet and the Terra-Captain moved rapidly to his station. Unlike a human commander, who’d most likely have remained in his own seat during the action, Dannet had been moving around the bridge constantly. But then, human officers had to pay a lot more attention to the needs of morale than Jao did. They needed to project the appearance of stolid unconcern for their own safety, where the Jao simply took that for granted.

    The boldly striped Narvo face studied the screen, then Dannet keyed on her mike, broadcasting to the entire ship. “The lead vessel has been destroyed,” she said, as casually as if she were discussing the balance of salts in a pool. “Focus fire now on the next-in-line.”

    The human members of the bridge crew cheered and Dannet’s body lines went to pure annoyance. She was still relatively new to Terra, and not very familiar with the habits of humans.

    For different reasons, Caitlin also thought that exuberance was out of place. Certainly premature. There were still at least four more Ekhat ships out there, just waiting for Lexington to make a mistake. And this was an untried ship, she thought, blood pounding in her ears, and, for the most part, a green crew. They were bound to make mistakes. That was part of the learning process.

    She realized with a start that her own lines and angles had gone to repressed-dread, which any Jao on the bridge could read. With an effort, she composed herself and assumed a credible, if shaky, version of determined-confidence. And, as she had found down through the years, her feelings shifted somewhat toward what her body was trying to say. She felt less frightened, more able to cope.

    The Ekhat ship charging after them was no longer firing. That was good, she told herself, wasn’t it? None of the Jao crewmen watching the viewscreen seemed to think so, though. Their lines had gone mostly to alarm.

    It was rushing toward them very fast, the image growing and growing. If it didn’t look out, it was going to –

    With a shock, Caitlin understood. “My God. It’s going to ram us,” she said under her breath.

    “All decks, lock down!” Dannet ordered over the P.A. Her ears had gone to concern, an indication of her abstraction.

    The nearest Jao bridge officer glanced up at Caitlin. “Find a seat and strap in,” he said, his eyes ablaze with green. “That location is not optimum for your safety.”

    Her face heated. She was just standing there, waiting for instruction, for someone else to save the day, like a two-year-old who’d escaped from the nursery and was wandering in traffic. All around the multilevel bridge, voices rose and fell, relaying readings, recommending adjustments, and she understood none of it. She felt so damned useless!

    Spotting an empty station, she moved into the seat, which was oversized for human dimensions in order to accommodate Jao members of the crew. Her hands shook a little as she buckled the safety harness around her waist and across her shoulders. In the viewscreen, the image of the Ekhat ship grew until all she could see was the infamous characteristic inverted tetrahedron. Her heart raced and she felt the sickening zing of adrenaline in her veins. If the Ekhat ship was trying to ram them, then Lexington should retreat, shouldn’t it?

    The rest of the bridge crew had taken similar precautions. “Gun mounts retracted and locked on all spines,” a human woman said off to Caitlin’s left.

    “Prepare for ramming,” Dannet said.

    “Maneuvering,” a Jao said on the far side of the bridge. Amber lights played across his muzzle.

    Dannet watched the central viewscreen and the on-coming Ekhat vessel with a hint of gleeful-anticipation in the line of her spine and the cant of her whiskers. Was the former Narvo insane? Caitlin wondered suddenly. Her predecessor, Oppuk, certainly had been. Or had Narvo sent her to the new taif with secret instructions to scuttle the Lexington at the first opportunity? The ship would never return and all across the galaxy Jao would say it was the human crew’s fault.



    “In position,” the Jao said. “All decks confirmed locked down.”

    “Then reverse course and accelerate,” Dannet said.

    Accelerate? Startled, Caitlin craned her head. The Ekhat ship was growing nearer, according to the viewscreen. Shouldn’t the image be shrinking if they were trying to avoid a collision? Surely Dannet wouldn’t –

    A human officer was counting down the seconds to impact, though the words meant nothing to the Jao. They already knew when it would take place, feeling it in some way that a human never would experience.

    She wanted to look away, but couldn’t. The Ekhat ship with its bizarre configuration, as though it were constructed from a child’s Tinker Toys, didn’t look that dangerous compared to the massive Lexington, but –

    The Ekhat swept closer and closer.

    There was a hideous crash that wrenched her neck and rattled her bones so that it seemed her brain was ricocheting off her skull. She was thrown against the harness with bruising force. The camera feed went black and it took several seconds for someone to switch to an alternate view.

    The Ekhat ship was disintegrating in an almost leisurely manner, gantries separating from one another, crushed tetrahedron spinning, gas venting, small explosions here and there. Then the flotsam burned, winking out with a flash so bright, it hurt her eyes. They had lost their shields in that moment, Caitlin realized with a jolt, then wondered how stable their own were after the crash.

    “Damage reports coming in,” a human male said from across the bridge, his voice hoarse. “So far, shields have retained ninety percent integrity.”

    So far? Caitlin didn’t like the sound of that.

    “Point of greatest impact?” Dannet asked, rising from her command chair, not a whisker out of place.

    There was a moment of silence as the bridge crew recovered their composure enough to punch in queries on their screens. “Spine C,” someone reported.



    Tully heard a klaxon wailing in his ears. He tasted the coppery bitterness of blood in his mouth.

    Hands reached down, removed his harness, and hauled him to his feet as though he weighed nothing. Jao hands, he realized, trying to clear his head. His vision was fuzzy as though someone had just clouted him in the head.

    “Y-Yaut?” But that made no sense, he thought, trying to get his bearings. He was on the Lexington, not back in Pascagoula.

    “– must command your troops!” the Jao was saying. Tully finally got his eyes to focus. The Krant-Captain, Mallu, was peering into his face. The Jao’s eyes crawled with green. “This deck is venting atmosphere. If we lose hull integrity, the ship will be vulnerable to the star’s plasma. Lexington will be lost!”

    “Damage control!” Tully husked, then looked about. Dazed soldiers, both human and Jao, were struggling out of their safety harnesses. At least one of the guns had something wrong with it, judging from the haste with which its crew was emerging. From the distance, Tully couldn’t determine the exact nature of the damage. A fire had probably started in the turret. Such a fire didn’t pose a threat to the whole area the way it would have if they’d been using old-style powder instead of liquid propellant. The moment the fire was detected, the propellant would have automatically been diverted from the area. But it could still kill any crewman trapped inside.

    “Lock those vents down!” he called. “There must be some fractures!” He stumbled to help, pulling the less injured to their feet, shoving them toward emergency lockers that held the needed sealant. Mallu was doing the same, though he could see now that the big Jao was also hunched in pain. The collision had done his healing ribs no good.

    Tully tried to make his dazed brain think. If Spine C lost hull integrity, Dannet would have to jettison it to save the ship. The fact that it was manned mostly by humans would make her decision easier, probably — it was obvious that Dannet had no liking for humans — but she’d do it just as quickly if the crew had been entirely her own people. The Jao did not select ship-captains for their sentimentality and tenderness.

    “Weapons Spine C, report!” a voice was saying over the clamor of the alarm.

    Tully grabbed Lieutenant Miller’s arm as she moved past him, headed for the emergency lockers. She had a cut above one eye and blood was trickling down her pale cheek. “Shut that klaxon off!” he said into her ear, having to shout.

    “Weapons Spine C, report!” the voice repeated. Tully thought it might be Dannet, but it was hard to be sure with all the racket. Was the rest of the ship any better off? By whatever gods were out there, he hoped so.

    He dropped into his seat, letting Mallu and the other gun captains supervise damage control for the moment. Baker Company had drilled repeatedly on safety procedures over the last few days, along with loading and firing the great guns. They would handle the situation, especially with Miller overseeing them. Bloody-faced or not, the young lieutenant was conducting herself in a calm and controlled manner.

    Abruptly the klaxon shut off and he felt limp with relief. Now maybe he could string two thoughts together.

    He turned his mike on. “Weapons Spine C, reporting,” he said. “We have –” He turned and surveyed the long narrow deck. “– fairly severe damage. Gun C-12 is out of commission, for sure, and the same is probably true of one or two others. There are no visible hull ruptures” — that was a stupidly unnecessary things to say, since if the hull was visibly breached inside the photosphere they’d all be crisped bacon by now — “but there are certainly microruptures. We are working to find and contain the leaks now.”

    Before him, the screen seemed to shrink and swell. He put a hand to his forehead and found a painful lump and the warm stickiness of blood. Great, he had probably knocked out what little brains he possessed. Yaut would –

    He sighed. Yaut would say to get over himself. He would say: Make yourself of use. Take care of your crew.

    “Secure damage, then report,” a Jao voice, not Dannet, said. “We have dispatched additional crew to assist.”

    Someone pounded on the hatch that provided entrance to the spine from the main body of the ship. From the sound, they were using a big wrench for the purpose. “Can you release from your side?” a faint voice called. “We can’t get it open.”

    Oh, swell. They were trapped. Tully went to the hatch, trying to twist the handle with both hands. The handle turned well enough, but the hatch remained firmly shut. The impact of the collision had probably warped the hatch entrance. Not much, but enough to keep the door sealed.


    He turned to find Kaln staring at him with a peculiar hunger. “Gun Six is functional,” she said, her good ear standing tall. “We may still fire at your discretion.”

    Fire at what? Oh, gods, he realized the Ekhat were still out there. “That is… good,” Tully said, trying to cudgel his brain into making sense of the chaos around him. “But we have no such orders at the moment, Senior-Tech. Carry on with your inspection of the rest of the guns.”

    He returned to his station. “Shall we acquire targets?” he asked the bridge.

    “Negative,” the voice said. That was perhaps Otta krinnu ava Terra, Dannet’s Second up on the bridge. What humans would consider an executive officer. “Proximate targets are already destroyed. The remaining three are staying clear of the photosphere for now.”

    Destroyed? “We — rammed them?” he said in a daze.


    And lived to tell about it, at least for the moment. Tully found that a little astonishing, even though intellectually he knew that ship speeds inside a star’s photosphere were slow enough to make ramming a tactic that could be distinguished — barely, anyway — from outright suicide.

    “I’ll be damned,” he said, forgetting that the line was open.

    “I have no doubt that such an event is inevitable,” Otta said. “Complete your damage control activities, then report back.”

    “Yes, Pleniary-Commander,” Tully said, his face heating. A Jao with a dry sense of humor was about as astonishing as surviving a ram inside a star.

    Behind him, he could hear someone outside whacking the hatch with what sounded like a crowbar along with a chorus of steady cursing. That wasn’t likely to do any good, if Tully’s assessment of the cause of the problem was accurate. They needed to blow that hatch, not bang on it.

    He turned to look for Caewithe Miller, but she was already there. She’d brought two able-bodied crewmen with her. One of them was carrying a portable drill.

    “I think we’ll need to drill and set explosive charges, sir,” she said. “In order to get the hatch open, I mean.”

    “Yes, I think you’re right. See to it, Lieutenant.” He didn’t bother to ask what she planned to use in the way of explosive material. Miller would know what she was doing. Tully still had a lot of injured crewmen he needed to get ready for evacuation in case the damage control teams couldn’t seal the hull leaks.

    “Exiting the photosphere to go after the remaining Ekhat vessels,” Dannet’s voice said on the ship-wide channel. “All decks prepare.”

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