Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Monday, January 25, 2010 20:23 EST



    Tully assisted where he could as the bridge crew set about restoring order. Every so often, he glanced over at Dannet’s Narvo-striped face as she directed the hunt for larger portions of the wrecked Ekhat vessels to ensure nothing had survived. Some of the Ekhat’s lasers were still firing from time to time, probably on automatic, because they were even targeting other Ekhat debris.

    Tully figured most of the pieces would wind up in the sun in fairly short order, but he admired Dannet’s ferocity. It was good to see Jao bloody-mindedness turned upon their common enemy. Humans knew only too well how focused they could be from the conquest of Terra.

    He watched the Terra-Captain covertly as she steered the bridge crew back on task, stern and uncompromising and deadly efficient. By all that was holy, she had outmaneuvered and outfought five fricking Ekhat ships! She was amazing. The Bond had certainly known what it was doing when it turned command of this ship over to her.

    Despite being Narvo. Or… more likely, because she was Narvo. Uncomfortably, Tully finally admitted to himself a truth which he knew was accepted by all Jao. Narvo was one of the two greatest of the Jao kochan, along with Pluthrak. But where Pluthrak’s stature derived from their subtlety and multiple associations, Narvo’s came from something much simpler. They were the great warrior kochan of the Jao. In purely military terms, by far the mightiest.

    Professor Kinsey had once commented that insofar as the Jao kochans found a parallel with the caste system of the Hindus, Pluthrak was the equivalent of the Brahmin priests and Narvo of the kshatriya warriors. The analogy hadn’t meant much to Tully at the time, but he could see the logic now.

    Dannet’s notice lighted upon him. “Major Tully,” she said, crossing the deck to stand by him. Her eyes blazed down at him, flickering with green, and her ears were positively dancing. Something was going on inside that alien skull.

    “Yes, Terra-Captain?” The knot on his head ached dully.

    “You were stationed in Spine C. So now your unit has no function.” Her ears kept flicking to odd angles, lowering abruptly, then rising again, as though her thoughts were racing.

    “Not while we are in space, Terra-Captain.” He kept his body very straight, trying for simple neutrality. “We took some injuries and at least two fatalities that I know of, but I can assign personnel to fill in wherever you have a need.”

    The Jao’s eyes had gone to almost pure green now. He suspected her of finding something in the situation amusing, and unfortunately, things that amused the Jao could give a human nightmares. “Though heavily damaged by our fire, one of the Ekhat ships survived,” she said abruptly, “or at least a substantial portion of it. That section has achieved a low orbit around the star and its shields appear to still be functioning, suggesting that it may yet be manned. Load the functional portion of Baker Company into assault craft and investigate whether any of the crew live.”

    Tully’s throat went dry. “And — what is our mission? Take the survivors prisoner or finish the job?” He devoutly hoped for the latter. He’d met a pair of Ekhat face to face once. They were barking insane.

    “It has been hundreds of years, as humans term such things, since the Jao captured an Ekhat ship. Even longer since we secured live Ekhat.” She settled into a Yaut-like stance, extreme-sternness, perhaps, or admonition-to-duty. “If any Ekhat survive, they will attempt to terminate themselves rather than face captivity. It is your responsibility to prevent this.” Her gaze turned to the screen. “Interrogating them could provide valuable information.”

    Question an Ekhat? He shuddered as he tried to visualize the process. “Jesus!” he muttered involuntarily, running fingers back over his aching head. Even his hair hurt.

    “Are you requesting support from one of your mythical talismans?” Dannet said. “I assure you that this Jesus, whatever it is, cannot assist you in this matter.”

    “No, Terra-Captain, indeed you are right,” Tully said, his mind whirling.

    “You have your orders,” Dannet said, and turned away.

    He saluted her back, trying to preserve the shreds of his dignity, then went to round up the rest of his unit. They didn’t know it yet, but they had a lot to get done.



    The Starwarders’ ship observed the end of the great battle as closely as the crew dared. The notion that the Lleix might survive this latest Ekhat incursion was heady. “All five destroyed?” Lliant said, his aureole fluttering with amazement. “That is not possible!”

    “Analyze the readings then yourself,” Jihan said. The newcomers’ victory was improbable, true, but Lliant’s continued incredulity angered her with its foolishness. She reminded herself that an Eldest, however short or newly named, should never give way to sharp words.

    “Who — are — they?” Hadata whispered from her pilot’s seat. “Where did they come from?”

    “And what do they want?” Segga, one of the other Starwarders said from his station at the back. The other two stayed out of the discussion, sullenly doing exactly what was required and nothing more. It was clear they had no wish to be here.

    What, indeed, did the newcomers want? wondered Jihan. Her nerves crawled with uncertainty. Were they as vicious as the Ekhat or perhaps even worse? They certainly fought with an unparalleled fierceness, suggesting that if the Lleix resisted them, their people could expect no quarter either.

    During the battle, the huge ship had lost a section, one of its strange flat extrusions that seemed to carry weapons. The piece drifted away from the battle and would eventually be pulled in by the star’s gravity. “If we can get closer to the debris field,” she said, studying the data, “I can take some readings, then beam the information back to the Starsifters. They might be able to tell us more. Perhaps there is some information on this species buried in the ancient records.”

    “You are not going to try to convince us that these creatures are Jao?” Lliant’s voice carried an implicit sneer.

    “No,” Jihan said, spreading her fingers across the console and gazing steadily at them. He would not provoke her! “Whoever they are, they do not resemble what I have learned of the Jao.” All those days spent learning the rudiments of the Jao tongue had been wasted, she thought regretfully. They would have to start all over with this species.

    “Maneuvering in that closely will be precarious,” Hadata said from her pilot’s seat. “I am reading a great deal of debris, much more from the Ekhat than the newcomer.”

    Jihan rose and crossed to Hadata, leaning over the other’s shoulder to point at her screen. “Match course with that huge piece there,” she said.

    “It is passing very close to the Ekhat debris field,” Hadata said, nevertheless making the suggested course corrections. “There are still a number of large sections. I am not certain how close we can safely get.”

    “Will we be in danger of collision?” Lliant asked.

    “I will endeavor to prevent that,” Hadata said.

    Jihan studied the spinning Ekhat flotsam. Perhaps they should also try to take some readings from –

    A red energy signature flared as a laser beam speared the flat section, vaporizing a fair amount. Hadata’s startled black gaze turned to Jihan. Her hands flew to the controls, plotting a new vector away. “They are still alive!”

    “They — cannot be,” Jihan said, her mind whirling. That section has lost hull integrity. You can see as it spins — it is open to space.”

    The energy signature flashed again, this time incinerating a broken girder from one of the Ekhat wrecks, hardly a threat by anyone’s standards.

    “It must be an automatic mechanism,” Lliant said, “firing at anything within range. Ekhatlore has records of such.”

    “That could include us!” Hadata said, her hands flying over the controls.

    Jihan headed back for her station, but the little ship jolted violently. She stumbled and then fell full-length to the deck, her head ringing, aureole collapsed around her face. Her arm, which had taken the brunt of her weight as she fell, throbbed.

    “We have been hit!” Hadata cried.

    The cabin filled with the unpleasant reek of burnt electronic components. Someone in the back section was crying out hoarsely, one of the other Starwarders, Jihan thought groggily. She had not gotten the female’s name.

    “T-take us back to Valeron!” Lliant said, coughing and waving away smoke. His face had smashed into his control panel and blood trickled down his cheek. He lurched out of his seat and went to check on the two back stations. One, a very short male, obviously quite young, sprawled on the floor, his head twisted at a bad angle. The other was still murmuring in pain, then her voice trailed off and she was ominously silent.

    Lliant returned, wiping his hands on his robes. “They are both dead,” he said, his face scrunched in disbelief.

    Jihan pulled herself up into her chair with her remaining good hand, cradling the damaged arm against her chest, the taste of blood in her mouth. Her vision blurred, came back into focus. On her screen, the Ekhat energy signature flashed again, then the newcomers’ ship answered by firing upon the spinning fragment, vaporizing it. Her pulse pounded as she feared it would then also fire upon them, but they were masked by the bulk of the flat extrusion. The vessel cruised on, massive, black, and deadly, evidently seeking out the last of the surviving Ekhat, putting an end to even the possibility any still lived.

    “We have taken damage to our engines,” Hadata said, punching in command after useless command. She turned in her seat to look at the rest of the crew. “This course is headed for the sun.”

    Lliant lurched to his feet, elegant draping forgotten. “Pull us out!”

    “We do not have enough remaining power,” Hadata said.

    “Then it is the Last-of-Days,” Lliant said, “at least for us.”

    Why did everyone always just give up? Jihan thought crossly. Her breath hissed as she tried to find a comfortable position for her injured arm. “Then we do have some power?” she said, gritting her teeth against the stabbing pain.



    “Not even enough to put us into a stable orbit, much less take us back to the colony,” Hadata said, her aureole drooping.

    “I have piloting experience,” Jihan said. “Let me try.” She and Hadata traded stations and then she used her Starsifter skills, one-handedly plotting the course of every bit of flotsam out there, the newcomer, and –

    She blinked. “Something fairly large has assumed low solar orbit,” she said, doing the calculations again just to be certain. “Yes, there!”

    Hadata came back. “I — see,” she said, “but it is part of an Ekhat ship. What possible good could it do us?”

    “If we shut down all extraneous equipment, I think we will have enough power for minor maneuvering,” Jihan said. “We can rendezvous with that fragment and avoid being drawn into the sun.”

    “Rendezvous with an Ekhat?” Lliant lurched to his feet. His face was rapidly darkening with bruises and his lip was split, giving his words a slur. “Are you insane?”

    “Would you rather burn up?” Jihan said. Her arm throbbed. There must be emergency medical supplies on-board. She needed to apply a pain-dampener so that she could think clearly. “If we hide there, we can summon one of our ships,” Jihan said. “Perhaps the Starsifters or another Starwarders craft.”

    “You would bring them to the Ekhat too?” Lliant snorted. “They should have thrown your body off a cliff that day you broke sensho in the Hall of Decision! You do not deserve to live among civilized people!”

    “Silence!” Hadata said. Her head hung as she visibly searched for the correct words to fit the situation. “Jihan is an Eldest and also has Starsifter experience. She has more right than you to determine policy.”

    “She will kill us all!”

    “We are already dead,” Hadata said. “It only remains to take our last few breaths.”

    Giving up again! Anger helped Jihan focus. “Lliant, stop babbling about dying and find the medical supplies. I have broken my arm.” She thought through the rising haze of pain. “Hadata, contact the Starwarders and Starsifters and see if any ships can come after us.” She sighed. “I will do my best to conserve what power we have left for maneuvering.”

    Lliant glared at her, not moving.

    “And stop pouting,” she said, awkwardly using her undamaged hand to shut down unneeded systems, one after the other. Most of the lighting was unnecessary, she thought, most of the heat. They were left with a few amber emergency lights that turned their silver skin sallow. “After all, it is entirely possible that you may get your wish. Despite our best efforts, we very well may not survive.”



    After the fighting was over, Caitlin and Wrot tracked down Tully in one of the sick bays.

    “I just came in here to check on my people,” Tully said, as a doctor insisted upon him lingering long enough to get his head wound cleaned. “My skull’s tough and I have orders to carry out.”

    Caitlin wrinkled her nose. The bustling med center reeked of antiseptics and blood. The worst of the injured had already been whisked away for surgery, though, and orderlies were cleaning up. Most of the rest of the patients in here now suffered from only minor wounds.

    Wrot leaned in and examined the gash in the back of Tully’s scalp for himself. “That is not too bad,” the old Jao said noncommittally.

    Tully looked a bit wan, Caitlin thought, but with typical Resistance stubbornness, he’d stay on his feet until he keeled over.

    The doctor shook his head as he laid aside bloodied cotton. Caitlin knew his name — Michael Bast — but hadn’t ever really spoken to him. He was young and gawky as though he hadn’t quite got his full growth. His face had gone quite pale after the events of the last few hours and he was apparently compensating for his nerves with an overly serious demeanor. Caitlin guessed, due to his youth, this was most likely his first time in combat.

    “After a crack on the head like that,” Bast said, glancing up at Wrot, “I would advise rest for at least twenty-four hours.”

    “No can do, Mike,” Tully said, flinching as a bandage was applied. “Baker Company has an assignment.” He smiled crookedly at Caitlin and Wrot. “Got to make ourselves of use and all that.”

    “Not if you’ve been knocked senseless!” she said, then she couldn’t help her curiosity. “What kind of assignment?”

    “Going to take assault craft and check out a bit of Ekhat junk that’s established low orbit around this star,” he said, sliding off the exam table. His blue jinau uniform was splotched with blood. He tugged to straighten his shirt. “Probably nothing, but then again unmanned wreckage should just plunge into the sun, so maybe Dannet is onto something.” He shook his head. “After beating the odds like she just did, I can’t deny that her instincts are all in the right place.”

    “You think some of them are still alive?” Caitlin said, overwhelmed with the possibilities. “My god, why doesn’t Lexington just blast them from here?”

    “Survivors will most likely be helpless,” Wrot said thoughtfully. “This is an opportunity to take prisoners, which comes very rarely when fighting the Ekhat.”

    She remembered the only time she’d ever seen Ekhat in person back in Terra’s solar system and shuddered. She’d had nightmares about that grisly encounter for months. “But when we parleyed with the Interdict, the two speakers killed themselves afterward,” she said, “because they couldn’t endure the taint of simply having talked to us — and that meeting was of their own accord.”

    “You must take great care to prevent that,” Wrot said to Tully, as the human struggled to get his arm through his jacket sleeve. “As Caitlin points out, they will wish only to die.”

    She took the jacket and held it for him. From the way he winced, he must be bruised from end to end. “Take me along!” she blurted. All three turned to stare at her, the doctor, Wrot, and Tully. “I’m trained as a diplomat. Let me try to talk them down from committing suicide.”

    “You’ve got to be kidding,” Tully said, shaking his head. “Ed would skin me alive.”

    “And me as well,” Wrot said. “At any rate, you are not here to speak to Ekhat. You and I both know that Ronz had a different mission in mind for you. It’s necessary, more than ever at this point, for you to remain onboard and hold yourself ready, should the need for your skills arise.”

    He meant if they encountered the Lleix, but so far there had been no sign of them. Even if they had been here, the sight of five blasted Ekhat ships had probably sent them running for cover back out into the galaxy.

    Caitlin sighed, able to tell from the stubborn angle of Wrot’s head that she couldn’t argue her way out of this. The old Jao might have gone “native” to a startling degree in the twenty-odd years he’d made his home on Earth, but at his core, he was solidly Jao. He had oudh in this situation, which meant she would stay on the Lexington and make herself of use any way he saw fit. She just hoped her opportunity came before she went stark raving bonkers from inactivity.



    The great ship had taken damage, Dannet thought, but fortunately not too much. She prowled from station to station on the Command Deck, reading the stats for herself, craving unfiltered data. Most of the damage, they could repair themselves. The mission, whatever it was, could continue, though no one had seen fit to trust her with its true nature.

    That bit of flotsam in low orbit, though, that was intriguing. It would be interesting to see what Baker Company found and what Wrot krinnu ava Terra would order her to do about it, when they reported back.

    She still felt some resentment that he had oudh and she did not. For all their fine words, Terra Taif had obviously not forgotten Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo’s deeds. It would be a very long time, if ever, until her Narvo origins were forgiven and she was judged upon her own merits.

    But… This had been a magnificent battle. And the ship which fought and won that battle — this odd, misshapen and hybrid vessel that she had initially thought was both grotesque and dubious — had proven itself. Her ship, now. Neither she nor anyone else would doubt that, any longer. Her place in Terra Taif might be questionable, but not her place in the Lexington.

    She had deduced Wrot was seeking contact with the species that had manned the other ship in the previous battle, but perhaps that vessel had only been passing through this system. She saw no evidence of them now, though, whoever they had been.

    At any rate, diagnostics had detected a single habitable planet in this system. Nebula gases reflected all attempts to scan the surface from this distance, but after they had finished the tiresome mopping up from the battle, they would be at leisure to take a closer look. Perhaps that would yield some useful information.



    Their trajectory was still not promising, Jihan told herself, but with precise firings of maneuvering thrusters, they might — just — intercept the wrecked piece of the Ekhat ship with its own orbit. So far, all efforts to contact one of their other Lleix vessels had failed. The hit they’d taken must have damaged the Starwarder transmitter. They were on their own.

    Lliant by turns sulked in his seat, then stalked about the rapidly cooling cabin and harangued her. The surviving Starwarder, Hidata, simply hunched over the screens in a daze, punching up useless vectors, until Jihan finally shut the systems down to save the ship’s precious power. What little they had might be enough, but then again it might not. They could not afford to waste any.

    What they would do, should they be successful by using the Ekhat debris to keep from falling into the sun, she did not know. That bit of ship was in a stable orbit, which was very unlikely without conscious direction. Someone had lived long enough to make it happen and she had no wish to make their acquaintance.

    But it seemed, if the Boh were watching, they would.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image