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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Friday, January 15, 2010 19:24 EST



    Third-Note-Ascending’s ship assumed a low orbit above the star’s photosphere, allowing her two minor conductors on the accompanying vessels to pursue the bizarre interloper as it retreated back into the sun from which it had emerged. Its unexpected intrusion had already altered the note she had been so carefully planning to transmit, once this system was scrubbed free of infestation. She and Third-and-a-Half-Note-Ascending must now consider the implications so that their presentation would reflect the battle and subsequent routing of a minor sapience accurately. How else could the Melody truly know itself than through its works?

    Below in the control pit, the little Anj gibbered and howled as they sought to repair the damage the strange ship had inflicted before sinking back into the swirling photosphere. The brutes had actually flung things at them, a form of primitive tech that had proved oddly effective.

    They had also fired laser weapons which matched the energy signature of the Jao. But the Jao, notoriously dull brutes that they were, had never employed anything like the solid projectiles that had taken out the Anj breeding gallery on this ship.

    An immature and still nameless Ekhat crew member broached the Conductor’s Pod with suitably nervous mincing steps. “Lead Conductor,” it said, not meeting their combined gaze. “Readings are inconclusive, but it would seem one or perhaps even both of our ships in pursuit have been destroyed.”

    “That is not likely, unless they fired upon each other,” Third-Note-Ascending said, Third-and-a-Half’s voice in perfect sync. “Which is also not likely.”

    “It is not,” the nameless drudge said, remaining prudently out of reach. “Nevertheless, that is what the readings seem to indicate.”

    There must be more. “And?” Third said, slowly circling her think-mate.

    “The enemy ship seems to be approaching.”

    “Then we will destroy it.” Third/Half was again contemplating the marvelous note she would contribute once this business was concluded.

    “It is very large.”

    Perhaps a quarter variation on the originally planned note with a slight tremolo at the finale would properly reflect the loss of the two Melody ships.

    “It masses more than our three remaining ships combined.”

    Its rising concern was unseemly. “These creatures hurl bits of metal to defend themselves,” she said, abandoning Half to stalk about the drudge’s quivering form. “Are we to be wary of such?”

    “You know best, of course,” it said, realizing its error and retreating. “Only give your orders and they shall be obeyed.”

    “Summon a replacement. Then terminate yourself. Your hesitation is a source of discord in our melody.”

    “At once, Lead Conductor.” The immature crew member signaled the service pool to send a replacement. Then, gouged out one of its eyes and began probing within for a key synapse.

    Not surprisingly, it bungled that also. It collapsed onto the deck, bleeding badly but still breathing. To her annoyance, Third was forced to reach into the wound and sever the cerebral tree herself.

    “Clean this up,” Third/Half said to its replacement, going back to their consideration of the forthcoming creation.

    Down in the Control Pit, the Anj were screaming. Their fear was pleasantly aromatic, filtering throughout the entire ventilation system. Third/Half turned as one to the viewing tank as a monstrous-sized ball of plasma emerged from the star.



    Maintaining the enveloping sheath of plasma as Lexington exited the photosphere was not technically difficult. It simply required modifying the same force shields that protected the ship within the photosphere. The problem for Terra-Captain Dannet was psychological. In the past, she had always been trained to shed the fiery plasma as soon as possible when emerging from a point locus, lest the ship’s overtaxed shields fail.

    But the notion of retaining the plasma ball as a protective shield had occurred to the human members helping in the design of Lexington from the very beginning. The Lexington had powerful kinetic energy weapons and the Ekhat would be totally reliant upon lasers. Maintaining a plasma ball around the ship would degrade the effectiveness of the enemy’s lasers without significantly affecting the Lexington’s own guns. Not as well as a star’s photosphere, of course, of which the plasma ball would be just a tiny fragment. But it might be enough to make a difference in a hard-fought battle.

    Dannet understood the logic. Still, it seemed unnatural. She was no more prone to enjoying novelty than any Jao.

    Spine C was down, having taken the brunt of the ramming, but the other kinetic weapons decks were still functional. She directed them to acquire targets and fire at will.

    The guns wouldn’t be as effective out here in open space, naturally. Fighting inside a star’s photosphere required the combatants to draw very close to each other, and their velocities dropped as well. Outside those conditions, in an open vacuum, the combatants would draw much farther apart and their velocities would increase. For all the savage effectiveness of the sabot rounds in close quarters, at these ranges and speeds the great majority of rounds fired would miss their targets. The shells were not missiles, with their own guidance mechanisms. They were very primitive weapons, when all was said and done.

    As for Spine C, if there was too much damage, it would be necessary to jettison it for the good of the ship. That provision had been foreseen also — in this instance, by the Jao members of the design team. All of the spines were designed so that they could be jettisoned from the ship. In effect, since the design of the Lexington ensured that almost all battle damage would first be inflicted upon the spines rather than the main hull, those huge spines added another highly effective layer of armor to the vessel.

    That might also require jettisoning the crew members in the spine, of course. That would be regrettable, but casualties were a given in war. Any war, much less the brutal and all-out struggle for survival that was the never-ending war with the Ekhat. If the need arose, Dannet would give the order to sacrifice the spine’s crew without a moment’s hesitation.

    Lexington edged out of the photosphere, looking for the enemy. If they could take out at least one of the Ekhat ships before they lost the protective shielding of the plasma ball, they would add to their advantage. As Dannet’s human subordinates would say, “help level the playing field.”

    The first time she’d heard that expression, she’d been puzzled. Once the logic was explained, she could see the meaning of it. But what sort of contorted mind would imagine a playing field for athletics tilted in the first place? As was so often true with humans, the saying was clever and irritating at the same time.

    Carefully, she restrained herself from slipping into a body posture that would project her annoyance. She had been warned when she was offered the assignment by the Narvo leaders. A great honor, of course, to help Narvo to overcome the stain left by Oppuk. That was so, even when the honor would have to remain unspoken, since she would be formally leaving Narvo to accept membership in the new Terra Taif. But she would also, they told her, be accepting a lifetime of aggravation — and if she reacted improperly to such, she would add to the stain rather than helping to remove it.

    And so it had been. Thus far, at least, and she saw no reason to expect the situation to improve.

    Her Second spoke up. “Damage Control reports they are still unable to evacuate Spine C.” Otta looked up from his screen. His whiskers and the cant of his head displayed concern.

    “That will be unfortunate,” Dannet said, “should we be forced to jettison. How is hull integrity in that sector?”

    Otta studied the stats. “Eighty-one percent, up from seventy. They are effecting repairs from the inside.”

    “I see.” She strode over to the tank displaying projected positions for the Ekhat ships, reduced to probabilities at the moment because of the distortion produced by the fiery plasma. Weapons systems were not the only things degraded by maintaining the shield.

    “Inform Tully that we may be required to jettison Spine C soon,” said Dannet. “We cannot risk a hull integrity in the spine worse than ninety percent, with a battle coming very soon.”

    “Jettison?” Caitlin Kralik said, crossing the command deck, her tiresomely unchanging eyes focused upon Dannet. The human’s lines and angles had gone to baffled-disbelief. “But…”

    Other human bridge crew watched her pass, then returned to their work, industriously not-noticing. Unexpectedly wise of them, Dannet thought, punching up a new set of readings.

    “There is a whole company down on Spine C,” Caitlin said, “including a member of Aille’s personal service and the remnants of the Krant crew. You cannot just cast them off! They would fall into the sun without a shield!”

    “Your perception of the situation is most likely correct, Mrs. Kralik,” Dannet said, remembering to use the peculiar human honorific taken by mated human females. Her own lines were carefully schooled to cool-indifference.

    That took some effort, as skilled as Dannet was at body posturing. She had disliked this particular female even before arriving on Terra and joining the new taif. Everyone in her natal kochan was aware that Caitlin Kralik had been instrumental, somehow, in pushing Oppuk past the bounds of sanity. How else explain what happened? Madness, common among humans, was rare among Jao. Among any Jao, much less a Narvo namth camiti.

    Dannet was younger than Oppuk, but still remembered him visiting her natal compound while she was training. He had been magnificent with a rakish vai camiti, strong and decisive. He had certainly deserved better than the ignominious death at the hand of a primitive he had suffered on Terra.

    The very primitive, in fact, who was now in command of the crew in Spine C. But that was irrelevant to Dannet’s present concerns.

    “That is a decision that must sometimes be made,” she said, “A few lives versus the survival of an entire ship.”



    “It has not come to that yet,” Caitlin said. Dannet saw how carefully the little human female was now controlling her lines and angles. She had gone blatantly neutral as only the Bond could manage. “Send more crew members to get them out of there.”

    “I have already dispatched as many as I can spare,” Dannet said, settling into her command chair. She itched to correct the feisty human, but the governor of Terra was sure to disapprove. As this one was a member of his personal service, it should fall to him to discipline poor behavior — unless Mrs. Kralik made herself insufferable before all here on the Command Deck.

    “This ship holds thousands,” Caitlin said, her body still classically neutral. “Surely, you can –”

    “Are you challenging my leadership?” Dannet’s voice was soft, yet pitched for all on the command deck to hear. She assumed the lines of polite-inquiry. It was crucial that she not leave herself open to the slightest criticism later, which would inevitably reflect back upon Narvo. Say it, she thought, though she kept any indication of her thoughts from her posture. Say the unforgivable.

    “Decks E and G firing,” the munitions officer said, as though his captain were not totally occupied with Caitlin.

    “Your leadership is beyond question, Terra-Captain,” Caitlin said. “This is, of course, your command and I will now leave you to it as I should have done when the engagement started. Please excuse me.” She strode toward the lift, taking the gaze of most of the command crew with her.

    The opportunity slipped away from Dannet like a wily sea creature diving into sunless depths. She had been so close to provoking the human into an unwise statement, but Caitlin had dodged the trap. And neither had she maneuvered the human into association, as Pluthrak was always so cleverly doing.

    Dannet forced herself to seize the possibility provided. “Mrs. Kralik.”

    Caitlin paused, and looked over her shoulder. “Yes, Terra-Captain?”

    “I have no desire to see unnecessary casualties. Please make yourself of use and go to Spine C. Warn Tully that we will jettison the spine if he cannot bring hull integrity back up to ninety percent.”

    Caitlin nodded. “Thank you. How much time does he have? He will need a human time frame, you understand.”

    More irritation. Dannet knew that humans insisted on breaking the flow of time into arbitrary and meaningless fragments. But she did not yet have the needed experience to provide an approximate translation of her own time sense.

    One of her human subordinates was standing nearby, and came over. That was Melonie Brown, the female officer who attended to many of the ship’s mechanical needs. She had some formal human title — Engineering Officer, if Dannet remembered correctly.

    “Tell him he has twenty minutes, Ship-Captain,” she said softly. “We have that much time before re-engaging the enemy. If Tully can’t re-establish ninety percent hull integrity within ten minutes, he probably can’t do it at all. And that gives him ten more minutes to evacuate the spine, which should be enough.”

    The specific units meant nothing to Dannet, but she had already discovered that Brown was capable and had an excellent knowledge of the Lexington’s design and structure. She would accept her judgment in the matter.

    She even remembered to do the little head jerk — they called it a “nod” — that served humans as a crude equivalent of either command-to-make-it-so or full-agreement. Or perhaps both. As with all human gestures, it was maddeningly vague. “Tell Tully what she says, Mrs. Kralik,” Dannet commanded. “In twenty minutes, if hull integrity has not been restored to ninety percent or better, I will jettison the spine.”

    Caitlin jerked her head, and left the deck.

    Interesting. Apparently the “nod” gesture was also the equivalent of obedient-acknowledgment. Despite her Narvo preference for straight-forwardness, Dannet was pleased with herself. She didn’t think even a Pluthrak could have elicited more association out of such an unpromising situation.

    And there would be more such situations, she thought, turning back to the projection tank. This was going to be a lengthy voyage. Her sense of flow predicted when they would likely return to Terra, as conditions now stood, and that time was not what a human would term “soon.” Before it was over, if all went well, much of the damage caused by Oppuk would have been repaired.

    It was unfortunate, of course, that Dannet would never have the pleasure of receiving formal recognition of her work from Narvo. But that was an inevitable part of the work itself. As she had been fairly warned. Far more important was that she make herself of use. To Narvo, to the Jao — and even, she was now coming to accept, the humans who were part of her adopted taif.



    Jihan saw that the largest alien ship had fallen back into the sun. Perhaps it was running away from the Ekhat’s superior force, using framepoint travel, or perhaps it was even immolating itself. The Ekhat were known to be casually suicidal, after all. Who could say how unknown alien species might behave?

    Either way, five Ekhat vessels remained in the system and the Lleix were facing them unaided. The realization terrified her even more, and she had not thought that possible.

    Then, two of the ungainly ships of the Ekhat devils followed the huge vessel into the sun. Lliant and Hadata looked at one another blankly. Time stretched out as no one on the tiny Starwarder ship spoke. Even the recycled air lay heavy in Jihan’s lungs. “What — does this mean?” she asked finally into the silence, thinking that the Starwarders or Ekhatlore would understand this turn of events far better than a former Starsifter.

    Lliant’s black eyes turned to her. “They must be pursuing the intruder back to its home.”

    So the great devils could visit death and destruction on yet another species. Whoever they were, it might be their Last-of-Days also.

    Hidata piloted the little ship closer, the crew observing, which was all they could do. This vessel carried no weapons heavy enough to be effective against the Ekhat. Three of the devils’ vessels remained in low orbit above the sun, their angular shape in stark black outline against the star’s brilliance, plainly visible.

    Then, a huge blob of fiery plasma emerged from the sun, rising slowly. It would be one or both of the Ekhat returning, Jihan thought, back from their grisly errand. It had taken very little time.

    But the shape was so massive, so round, unlike the Ekhat design, spindly, angular, and long. “It is the intruder,” she said, hardly able to breathe.

    “That cannot be,” Lliant said, his fingers flying over the controls, taking readings, evaluating what little data came back.

    The immense vessel soared toward the remaining three Ekhat, still enveloped in the deadly plasma. “They mean to use the plasma as a weapon, I think,” Jihan said. “They will engage them.” She tight-beamed the bizarre sight back to Valeron for the Starsifters, Starwarders, and Ekhatlore. Jaolore had not yet set up a receiver for such data. As with so many other things since Jaolore’s rushed formation, there had been no opportunity.

    “What happened to the two Ekhat ships that were pursuing it?” Lliant said.

    Who was manning that ship? Jihan kept asking herself. It resembled nothing that belonged to the Jao. Were these new creatures as bad as the Ekhat, or perhaps even worse? It was entirely possible.

    The huge vessel was firing again, no doubt from those strange flat extrusions which were not visible at the moment. The closest Ekhat ship abruptly changed vector — as it was hit, perhaps — then returned laser fire which seemed to have no effect.

    Three against one. Massive as their ship was, the newcomers could not possibly prevail against such numbers, and the other two ships could return at any moment. The Ekhat would finish them off and then turn their attention back to Valeron.

    The others fell silent again, sitting rigid before their screens in grief and shock. However this battle turned out, the Lleix and their way of life were already dead, but for the moment those on this ship were the only ones who knew it.



    Down in Spine C, at Tully’s order, Mallu took charge of the work of trying to restore hull integrity. He let his timesense stretch out as he worked, so that the mad rush to attend to damage seemed almost leisurely, allowing him to detect details that might otherwise have escaped his notice. Major Tully was still struggling to open the hatch, so he did not consult the human’s judgment any more than strictly necessary.

    Jalta had been stunned by the collision and was sitting propped up against a bulkhead, bleeding from a gashed shoulder. Up and down the line of great gun mounts, the human lieutenant named Miller and Senior-Tech Kaln were coordinating that work, certifying which guns could return to service and organizing dazed, but able-bodied crew into new groupings to operate them. At least two of the fourteen guns were completely out of commission. Unsalvageable, according to Kaln, by anything short of a repair dock.

    Mostly, Mallu was impressed by the way the majority of the humans ignored their own injuries and helped with the repair work or aided their more badly wounded fellows. He was unaccustomed to the species, and could now see that their appearance had fooled him, at least to a degree. There was something both fragile and vaguely comical about humans, to an untutored Jao eye. He had not expected them to show such determination and resilience in the middle of a fierce battle.

    The air had quickly grown stale, filled with the stink of shorted out wiring and acrid smoke, and it was very hot. All around him, the humans’ naked faces gleamed with moisture as though they had just come from swimming. A curious side effect, evidently, of their biochemistry under stress.



    Then Tully called him over to his screen. “Dannet is trying to retain the plasma sheath as we emerge from the photosphere.”

    Mallu had gotten accustomed enough to human speech to understand that the tone of Tully’s remark was one of admiration for Dannet’s cunning. For himself, Mallu thought he understood what the Terra-Captain was trying to accomplish. Laser weapons were ineffective against the Lexington as long as they were enveloped in the fiery plasma, but the kinetics could still be utilized. At the present moment, only five of the guns were operational on Spine C, but Kaln and the human female officer named Miller had them manned and firing.

    “Gabe?” a faint human voice called from the other side of the jammed hatch.

    “Caitlin!” Tully turned away from the screen, then shouted something back in the slippery native tongue.

    The voice answered, still speaking in Terran. More precisely, the Terran language called English, which seemed to be the dominant one. Humans had a bewildering variety of tongues.

    Tully moved over to the hatch, crouched to press his ear against it, and listened for a short while. Then he turned to Mallu. “That is Caitlin Kralik,” he said. “She has just come from the command deck. Dannet is ready to jettison this spine, if we don’t contain our damage. She says we have less than seventeen minutes left to bring integrity back up to ninety percent.”

    By now, Mallu had learned to translate the rigid human time terms into meaningful concepts. Closely enough, he thought. He looked up and down the long narrow deck, gauging the progress of the jinau and Jao crewmen, working together to repair the damage. For the first time since he’d encountered them, Mallu felt some genuine liking for humans. As baffling and aggravating as they so often were, it was now obvious to him that they were also capable of subordinating their petty concerns and associating with others — Jao as well as their own kind — for the sake of the mission.

    For the first time, also, he essayed one of those crude and imprecise human body gestures. A “shrug,” they called it. “If she must, then our deaths will make themselves of use by preserving Lexington. There is nothing worse than losing a ship.” He still felt the hollowness incurred by the loss of his own command. “I am almost certain that we will not be able to restore sufficient hull integrity in the time allowed.”

    “That’s what I figured myself,” said Tully. “I think we’d need at least an hour, more likely two or three.”

    He stood up abruptly. “To hell with that damn Jao stoicism,” he growled. “Our deaths will be of no fricking use to anyone on this highly misbegotten ship, especially ourselves. But our lives certainly will!” He turned his head, seeking something, then pressed a stubby ear to the metal, apparently listening. “We are damn well getting out of here!”

    The human was so overwrought that he kept sprinkling his Jao conversation with incomprehensible Terran terms. Mallu moved closer, his whiskers limp with bafflement. Lexington’s design was unfamiliar, heavily influenced as it was by Terran esthetics. Perhaps he was missing an obvious alternative that could get them out in time. “What can we do from this side that we have not already tried?”

    Tully looked at the two human crewmen who had been working at the hatch earlier. They had ceased that work some time back, and had spent the time since doing something incomprehensible.

    One of the two crewmen nodded at him. “It’s ready, sir.”

    Tully hammered on the metal hatch with his fist. “Caitlin!” he cried. “Get away from the hatch! You and everybody else out there! Do you hear me?”

    Mallu heard the Caitlin female’s muffled voice responding with what he took for an affirmative. Puzzled, he wondered what Tully was planning.

    Tully stepped back and motioned at Mallu to do the same. “Stand back!”

    Still confused, Mallu did as instructed. A moment later, at a gesture from Tully, there was the sharp cracking sound of a contained explosion.

    The hatch sagged open along the side where the hinges had been. Mallu could see now that the two crewmen had placed explosives charges of some kind.

    The whole thing was obvious, in retrospect. Mallu hadn’t realized what they were doing earlier because…

    It was so monstrous. Inconceivable, until he saw it done. They might have condemned the entire ship! With the hatch unable to be closed again, there would be no easy way to seal off the wound caused by the spine’s jettisoning.

    At first, he was too enraged to speak coherently. Then he began shouting at Tully.

    But Tully shouted back, and after a moment, the meaning of his words penetrated.

    “– stupid Jao bastards, you’re worse than idiot kamikaze! Thankfully, this ship was designed by humans. You think we’re dumb enough to build a ship designed to break apart in a crisis — and not make provisions for the safety of the crew?”

    He went back to utterances in which the words “Jao” and “stupid” and “bastards” intermingled freely. But did so while spending most of his time and energy waving crewmen forward to escape through the now-open hatch.

    “– get those people out of the turrets, Lieutenant Miller! Kaln, you murderous maniac, quit firing! We’ve got to get them out of there!”

    Mallu could see Kaln in the distance, obviously hesitating and reluctant to obey the order.

    One of the two crewmen who’d done the work at the hatch — what humans called a “sergeant,” if Mallu was reading their equivalent of rank stripes properly — leaned over and spoke softly.

    “The ship is designed to seal itself off from a jettisoned spine with a lot worse damage than a blown entry hatch, sir. This won’t make any difference at all to the integrity of the Lexington. All it does — maybe — is let us survive.”

    And that too was obvious, now that Mallu thought about it. Humans were simply not Jao, no matter how bravely they might conduct themselves. They would take the time and spend the effort to establish safety provisions that Jao would ignore.

    The first crewmen began emerging from the gun turrets. Most of the other crewmen in the spine were already lined up and beginning to pass through the hatch. The sergeant — his name was Andrew Allport, Mallu remembered — was now helping one of the more badly hurt of the crewmen through the hatch. The door was still not fully open, so passage through it was a bit difficult for someone impaired by wounds.

    One by one, they squeezed through the blasted door, the Jao having a harder time because of the breadth of their shoulders. Mallu hoisted Jalta to his feet and pushed him through just behind Kaln, who was aiding, not one, but two humans who had suffered broken limbs. Tully was hanging back, evidently intending to be last. He even had a brief argument with the small female officer concerning the matter. Apparently, she’d planned herself to be the last one out of the spine.

    Very brief. For all his fondness for mocking Jao habits, Tully had something of those Jao attitudes himself. As he passed through the hatch, Mallu could hear Tully behind him.

    “– on your feet or on your ass, Miller. That’s your only choice, and either way you’re going through that hatch first. Now why don’t you do something useful instead of wasting my time and yours?”

    Now out of the spine, Mallu turned and peered back through the hatch door. The red-furred lieutenant’s face seemed even paler than usual. Her jaws set, she nodded abruptly, and went through the hatch. Mallu helped her through. Tully followed closely behind.

    A new alarm sounded, pitched excruciatingly high. Only the dead could have ignored it.

    All up and down the deck, explosive bolts blew between the inner wall and the outer ship. Mallu recognized that sound. The long narrow weapons spine lurched as its supports were severed one by one.

    “Let’s get out of here before we get caught by the shield plates,” Tully half-shouted. Looking, Mallu saw that some sort of protective plates were emerging from slots he’d never noticed and were closing rapidly across the hatch in the narrow space that separated the entrance to the spine from the main hull. From what he could see, such plates would cover the entire base of the spine. No wonder Tully hadn’t been worried that destroying the hatch would compromise the integrity of the hull. For all the speed with which they were closing, the shield plates were massive, much thicker than the hatch had been.

    Mallu followed Tully through the rapidly dwindling space. Behind them, the shields locked into place with a metallic clang. Then there was a rasp and the last of the connecting bolts were severed. The alarm’s tone rose, even more strident. Mallu batted at his tortured ears.

    “Gabe, are you all right?” A human female with yellow head fur — “hair,” the humans called it — was kneeling beside the major, peering at his head wound.

    He answered in Terran, then the female looked at Mallu, her curves and angles gone to a splendid rendition of profound-gratitude. “You have accomplished much good work here today, Krant-Captain.”

    How could a human move so elegantly? Mallu stared. Her posture was perfect, effortlessly double. He felt like an uneducated clod.

    Medicians were evaluating injuries and taking the wounded away for treatment. A Jao medician stopped to check Mallu, but he waved him on. His ribs ached, nothing more, as far as he could tell, beyond a scrape he’d somehow picked up on his left leg. There were many who needed immediate attention far more than he did.

    The ship shook as though they had taken a hit. He lurched to his feet and bent over Tully as a medician dabbed the cut on the Terran’s forehead with antiseptic. “I am going up to the command deck,” he said.

    “Not without me!” Tully struggled to his feet, then swayed. Mallu caught his arm and then together they wove toward the nearest lift.

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