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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 07:08 EST



    Tully took the lift back up to the bridge, bracing himself against the wall as the deck indicator flashed, watching Mallu on the other side of the cab. The Krant-Captain was in obvious pain, standing bent over to ease his ribs. One of the legs of his maroon trousers were torn, the skin beneath abraded and seeping that odd orange shade of Jao blood. Tully wondered how the Jao had acquired the injury. In all likelihood, though, Mallu wouldn’t know himself. Things had been pretty chaotic and confused in the spine for a while.

    Tully’s own head throbbed where it had collided with the bulkhead, but he was almighty grateful not to be left behind in the weapons spine as the jettisoned section drifted toward immolation in the blazing white-hot heart of that star.

    The lift stopped abruptly. The door opened and they ventured into controlled chaos, Tully taking the lead out of respect. The scattered viewscreens displayed only a blaze of filtered light. Tully craned his head. The ship must still be enveloped with plasma. Was Dannet’s crafty plan working?

    There was some sort of stink in the air. Subtle, but still noticeable. Overheated wiring, maybe. Low voices were arguing at the far end. Then heads turned as he and Mallu stepped onto the bridge. Terra-Captain Dannet looked up from a display she was examining. Her body posture was not one Tully was familiar with. Or didn’t think he was, anyway. It wasn’t always easy to tell, because the different great kochans all had their own variations on Jao body language. Like so many dialects, as it were.

    “Major Tully and Krant-Captain Mallu,” she said, stating the obvious as Jao never did.

    Tully waited, but the captain could seem to think of nothing else to say.

    “My crew are being looked after,” he said, assuming a Yaut-like posture. Readiness-to-serve, he hoped, or perhaps respectful-attention. He never could get those two straight. “I thought I would report in person. We come to make ourselves of use.”

    “The command deck is already fully staffed,” Dannet said, turning back to the display. Her ears twitched and came together. “But you may remain and observe, if you wish.”

    Was that just a hint of approval in the line of her spine? Tully, not for the first time, wished he were more fluent in bodyspeak.

    Lexington reeled suddenly like a boxer who had taken a punch. Tully almost fell into the lap of a startled Jao female, catching himself at the last second against the nearest console. Mallu did better, riding out the pitching motion, having apparently developed better “space legs” through long practice.

    The ship took another hit, though not as massive. “All three enemy combatant ships firing,” a human woman said, eyes trained upon her display. “Minimal damage on our end. The plasma diffuses their lasers.”

    If the damage was minimal, what had caused those tremendous jolts? And now that Tully thought about it, lasers weren’t really impact weapons to begin with. The answer came on the heels of the question. Dannet had ordered evasive action.

    Tully winced, when he considered just how extreme that “evasive action” had to have been, to move an object as massive as the Lexington so quickly that even the internal gravity controls were overloaded. Dannet’s pilot was handling the huge craft as if it were some kind of old-style human fighter plane in a dogfight! That was Charles Duquette, who didn’t even have the excuse of being a Jao.

    The bridge stilled but for the ever-present beeps and clicks as the instruments cycled. A Jao was calling out distances in hundreds of azets, a Jao standard of measurement. They were all waiting for… something. Tully wasn’t sure what.

    “Desired proximity achieved,” the Jao officer finally said. Tully thought he recognized Sten krinnu ava Terra, the ship’s navigator. “All three enemy vessels are now inside our plasma sheath.”

    Dannet took her own command seat, Tully and Mallu seemingly forgotten. “All kinetic weapons decks, maximum fire when you have a target!”

    Tully edged behind a support pillar so that he wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. He also wanted to stay out of Dannet’s sight, as much as possible. Even though she’d given them permission to stay on the command deck, Tully had no desire to trigger a change of mind on her part. He and the rest of his company had nearly given their lives in this battle. He’d damn well earned the right to be here. So had Mallu.

    Visual input had been pretty much useless as long as the Ekhat remained outside the plasma ball, but now that Lexington had closed with them, Tully could just make out dark, oddly articulated outlines in the swirling inferno, as well as the ruby blaze of their lasers, still targeting them.

    Kinetic rounds were making Swiss cheese out of the nearest vessel, while the answering Ekhat lasers were severely degraded by the plasma. Lexington maneuvered to give the surviving kinetic weapons decks a better angle, and then Tully detected several small explosions at the base of the nearest tetrahedron. The strobe of their lasers faded and the ungainly vessel drifted away.

    Was it dead? Tully looked around at the deck. Everyone was focused upon his or her task. Several stations were unoccupied, though. He turned and motioned to Mallu, gesturing that the Krant-Captain should take the nearest one.

    Mallu flicked an ear, then slid into the indicated chair, pulling on headgear as though he belonged there. Tully hunkered beside him, using the Jao’s bulk to keep him out of Dannet’s sight.

    “What is happening?” he asked Mallu in a low voice.

    The Jao listened. “The closest Ekhat is drifting back into the photosphere,” he said. “If their shields hold, and we survive the battle with the remaining two, we will have to go in after them.”

    “Great,” Tully muttered. He dabbed at his aching head with the back of one hand and then stared at the sticky blood. Whoever thought up all this insane sailing around inside suns ought to be shot. Oh, wait, he told himself, that had been the Ekhat. No wonder. They were bat-crazy to begin with.

    All the same, he had a new respect for the Jao, stiff-necked imperialists that they were, for fighting the good fight all these years against the Ekhat’s murderous insanity. They looked positively like good old homeboys in comparison.



    “The Ekhat are still battling the intruder,” Jihan said, hunched over her instruments.

    “But it is so outnumbered!” Hadata leaned over Jihan’s shoulder. Lliant got to his feet and joined them.

    Like the Lleix, Jihan thought. The universe seemed to produce more Ekhat than any other species. “Two of the Ekhat ships followed it into the sun, but did not return. They have either fled the system or been destroyed. Now the newcomer has resurfaced from the sun’s photosphere, sheathed in plasma, and closed with the remaining three Ekhat ships so that they are all inside the plasma ball.”

    “Such ships are designed to withstand contact with plasma,” Hadata said. “It cannot defeat them that way.”

    “Their weapons will burn it into slag!” Lliant said, his fingers gripping the back of Jihan’s much patched chair.

    “Perhaps not.” Her aureole flared with excitement. The strategy in this strange battle was so different from anything she had come across in the historical records. The newcomer could not possibly be another Ekhat faction, and neither could it be their despised lackeys, the Jao. Everything, the design of the monstrously huge ship, the strange armament, the peculiar tactics, all pointed to some species never before encountered.

    She detected an explosion, then one of the Ekhat ships drifted out of the plasma back toward the star, wobbling eccentrically, clearly not under power. “Only two left!” she said, her voice a hoarse excited whisper. Two out of five, when even one of the monstrous vessels was enough to destroy an entire planet. Were the long-lost guardian spirits looking after the Lleix, after all?

    “That cannot be!” Lliant said, turning away.

    She gazed across the cramped cabin at him. He was elegant and educated, his robes perfectly draped, his manners precise, but his mind was closed. “It is just possible that we do not know everything about the universe,” she said. Lliant stiffened, but resumed his station and did not turn around. “At one time, before the Ekhat rained destruction upon our many worlds, murdering our future, we knew more than we do now. One only has to walk the colony and view deserted house after house to comprehend how very much we have lost through the long years of our exile.”

    “Jihan!” Hadata said, slumping in amazement at the Jaolore’s effrontery.

    Exasperation flooded through Jihan. “What I said is true,” she said, “and pointless avoidance of the facts will not make them any less valid.” She stiffened her aureole, sitting up straight to make the most of her meager height. “And there is no reason to look so shocked. I have not broken sensho by saying any of this.” She gazed into Hadata’s lovely upswept black eyes. “I am an Eldest. No one else here can say that for themselves.”

    “Eldest of a pack of dochaya fools!” Lliant said under his breath.

    Hadata lowered her head and returned to her pilot’s seat. “Indeed,” she murmured, “not that such things will matter once the Ekhat dispatch this newcomer and turn their attention to Valeron.”

    It might not come to that, Jihan thought with just a trace of hope. The outsider might triumph, giving them at least more time to evacuate Valeron, but she kept the outlandish notion to herself. Events would proceed, regardless of what she or any of the others thought. Then they would all see who was right.




    Clever, clever Terra-Captain! Mallu thought, hunkering over the sensor board. It was well known that energy weapons were ineffective inside a star’s photosphere, but, until now, that disadvantage had applied to both sides battling in such an environment, Jao and Ekhat. With the addition of kinetic weapons to their arsenal, Dannet was using the plasma to give them a huge advantage.

    The disabled Ekhat ship, however, had not plunged back into the star after all, he realized from the readings. It had established a very low orbit and no doubt they were racing to complete repairs and rejoin the battle.

    Dannet couldn’t maintain the plasma ball indefinitely. Lexington would have to make maximum use of the advantage while it lasted.

    Two Ekhat ships remained in play. Tully edged higher, gazing into the screen with an odd hunger. “Jesus!” he said.

    Mallu flicked an ear in irritation. “Speak Jao or at least comprehensible English,” he said. Then, grudgingly: “Please.”

    “That was just the invocation of a—sacred name,” Tully said. “A wish for –luck. The content is emotional, not indicative.”

    Superstition, then. Mallu managed to keep his whiskers from bristling with indignation. As though that sort of primitive nonsense could be of any use in this situation! He punched up a real-time view on the station’s screen. The nearest Ekhat ship had taken continuous heavy fire from their kinetics and was now breaking apart, the angular gantries spinning off on trajectories of their own, the tetrahedron imploding. Gas vented, then the shields failed spectacularly and the metal components were melting into slag from the high temperatures. Scattered remnants spun lazily toward the star.

    “One left!” Tully said. The peculiar tracings of yellow nap above his static eyes rose.

    But Lexington’s plasma protection was dissipating quickly, Mallu saw by the readings. Hull temperature was plummeting.

    “All laser decks, go to full power,” Dannet ordered. Her ears were pinned in unabashedly singular concentration. “Fire at will.”

    Lexington shook and Tully sprawled on the deck at his feet. Dannet glanced aside at him, but said nothing. Despite the Terran’s attempt to conceal his presence, Mallu knew that she’d been aware of him all along and had just chosen for the moment to say nothing.

    Klaxons went off. Emergency indicators flickered into life. “Taking damage on decks twenty-eight through thirty-three,” a human male said.

    Now that the plasma sheathe was dispersing, they were again vulnerable to laser fire, but then so was the remaining Ekhat vessel, and Lexington was heavily armed with both kinds of tech. Commands raced through Mallu’s mind, maneuvers and tactics he would try if he were in charge.

    As he was unlikely to be — ever again.

    “Jesus!” Tully said again, his eyes trained on the main viewscreen where the ruby strobe of Ekhat laser weapons was clearly punishing Lexington’s shields.

    Obviously, the name’s invocation was of no practical benefit, but, flashing back to his own ship’s crippling, Mallu was almost of a mind to try it himself.

    “All decks, lock down!” Dannet ordered, buckling herself in. The rest of the command deck crew hastened to obey. Some of the humans had gone quite red in the face. Others were noticeably paler.

    “Cut speed to one quarter,” Dannet said. “Come about ten degrees.”

    Mallu levered Tully up from the deck, wincing at the pain in his ribs. “Over there!” He shoved the human toward another empty station.

    “But –” Tully turned back to him.

    “Fool!” Mallu buckled the safety harness around his own shoulders. “We are going to ram!”

    Tully dove for the chair and fumbled at the straps. In the viewscreen, the Ekhat ship grew larger and larger until all that could be seen was a close-up view of the tetrahedron believed to carry the main Ekhat living quarters.

    Careful, careful, thought Mallu as the blood thundered in his ears. Ramming in open space was extremely dangerous, given the speeds involved. They could not strike the other vessel solidly, or, despite the new ship’s massive construction, Lexington would take fatal damage as well.

    Dannet consulted the readings. “Come about two degrees more, Lead-Pilot Duquette.”

    For some reason, one of the humans was counting down the diminishing distance in Jao. Mallu did not know why. It was quite obvious when the Lexington would collide. Flow indicated that it would be –

    – now.

    The deck heaved and everything, including his body, was impelled savagely upwards and back. Unsecured writing implements, cups, coms, electronic tablets, and anything else not tied down flew across the huge cabin, pelting unwary crew. His teeth clicked so hard, he thought he might have broken one. The safety harness held, biting deep into his shoulders and chest, but the wave of pain from his healing ribs made his vision white-out.

    When he could see again, the command deck was dark, save for a few blinking red lights. Pain flickered through his body like heat lightning. He had to breathe shallowly. Voices were calling, reporting, demanding, but faraway, almost as though they had nothing to do with here and now. Something had shorted out and he could smell the burnt metal reek of the wires.

    He turned his head, surveying the damage. Terra-Captain Dannet was struggling with her harness. Mallu freed himself and went to help. The Terra-Captain did not acknowledge him, only lurched to her feet as he disengaged the harness, eyes blazing with green fire. “Damage Control, report!”

    “Damage Control parties dispatched to Decks Fifteen, Seventeen, and Thirty-Two,” a hoarse human male said. “Weapons Spine F is experiencing some atmosphere loss, but hull integrity is still ninety-three percent.”

    Across the command deck, lights flickered back on, though not all of them. Officers unbuckled their harness and hastened to check unresponsive crewmen. Mallu inspected Tully, who seemed dazed, but not visibly injured.

    In the viewscreen, the Ekhat ship spun crazily, too fast for its station-keeping jets to stabilize. Mallu understood at once that Dannet’s maneuver had worked perfectly — given the skill of the human pilot. The Lexington had missed the main body of the Ekhat vessel entirely and collided with one of the outlying gantries. The gantry had been torn off, of course — but, more importantly, the enemy ship had been sent into an uncontrolled spin. Ekhat fire control was simply overwhelmed. There was no longer any way they could aim their lasers from such a rapidly rotating vessel. Their internal gravity controls might even be collapsing, which would produce massive injuries on the Ekhat and their slave crewmen.

    The same spin, of course, would bring every part of the enemy vessel under the Lexington’s guns, if — no, once; Mallu could see that the pilot was already at work — the range was close enough.

    Less than two minutes later, it was. The Lexington was positioned no more than three azets from the Ekhat ship. “All kinetic weapons decks, begin firing,” Dannet said, pacing back and forth before the screen.

    Lexington vibrated as the big guns on the two remaining kinetic energy weapon spines started firing. More than two dozen 500mm cannons send a stream of depleted uranium sabot rounds into the spinning enemy vessel. It was like watching a piece of metal in a lathe being cut into ribbons. Pieces of the Ekhat vessel went flying in all directions, the pieces getting larger with each passing second. Then, suddenly, the whole ship just disintegrated.



    Fifteenth-Note-Flat and First-Note-Ascending stalked about the Conductor’s Pod of their ship in a savage temper, having already slaughtered everything living within reach. The vessel was spinning out of control and the brainless Anj down in the Control Pit seemed unable to remedy the situation, no matter what the two think-mates threatened.

    Who were these intruders? There was no record of any ship with such bloated dimensions and they fought like no other species ever encountered by the Melody. It was intolerable. They must be tracked back to their nest and exterminated.

    The ship shook with repeated blows. The intruder was hammering them to pieces by lobbing chunks of simple matter, distressingly dense, all the while also employing more traditional energy weapons. Their own weapons were returning fire, but it was impossible to target with any accuracy while spinning at this rate.

    An explosion rocked the ship as another one of the solid rounds impacted with some critical sector. The interior gravity flickered on/off/on, so that their feet drifted off the deck, then they were slammed down, only to lose contact again a heartpulse later. The end of the next flicker brought an increase in gees and Fifteenth suffered a broken lateral joint as they hit the floor, which made their mental synchronization difficult. First hastily broke her own joint so that they could still think in tandem.

    Down in the Control Pit, the Anj were squealing, rising up off the floor, then being crushed by the erratic gees. The noisome stink of their vital fluids filled the air. Then the gravity cut out altogether and they were pinned against the hull by centrifugal force. Fifteenth lost synch with First and found his thoughts chasing themselves round and round like small terrified vermin. The note, he thought. Now they would never get to sing their perfect note. The composition in this quadrant would remain woefully incomplete.

    Something cracked. Fifteenth glimpsed the black of raw space through the parting cabin walls, along with the colored gauzy red threads of the nebula, dim faraway stars, the sun of this system, then blackness again as they spun and spun. Atmosphere vented with a whoosh, and then there was nothing left to breathe.

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