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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 07:27 EST




    As they approached the Ekhat wreck, Jihan was forced to divert more and more of their dwindling power supply to the shields. Solar radiation at this proximity was deadly.

    Lliant was of little help, mostly just mumbling about the Ekhat, huddled in one of the chairs, his robes rucked up in a shocking fashion. Hadata had regained some of her composure, but continued to look to Jihan to direct their actions as the only Eldest on board.

    The two remaining Starwarders were, as Lliant had reported, quite dead, one from a broken neck, the other from severe burns taken when the power surge had shorted out the electronics of her ship station. Jihan bullied Lliant until he stirred himself to remove their bodies to a storage area, then left him to fret.

    With the application of an herbal pain-dampener, Jihan’s arm proved not to be as badly damaged as she’d feared. Muscles and ligaments seemed to be torn, but she did not believe the bones were broken after all. She now had limited use of it, which was enough for the moment.

    The ship’s interior cooled rapidly with most of the power shunted to the shields and thrusters. Her bare toes curled against the numbingly chill metal underfoot. Her fingers stiffened, gone clumsy as a child’s, increasingly hard to use. She had shut off the emergency lights, so now, seated in dimness, the only light came from the instrument panels. Their shadowed faces were uniformly grim.

    She took successive readings as they neared, then her aureole flared as she detected energy traces from the Ekhat derelict. The hull had been holed by the newcomers’ extraordinary weapons and could not possibly contain an atmosphere, yet electrical activity was evident. Could it be automatic, like the fragment of ship that had fired upon them? If so, they could be hastening to their deaths.

    But they had no choice. Their trajectory had them headed into the sun, whatever they did with their limited resources. They had to make the best of what opportunities were given them, which admittedly, wasn’t much. At this rate of power depletion, their shields would give out before they hit the photosphere itself. They needed to protect themselves from the radiation almost as badly as they needed to escape the sun’s gravity. That derelict could shade them if they anchored on its dark side.

    Sitting back, her head spinning, she turned to Hadata. “We need to secure this ship to the derelict.”

    The Starwarder raised her head, black eyes shining. Her aureole did not stir. “We have magnetics.”

    “Magnetics will be of no use,” Lliant said bleakly, eyes slitted almost shut. He was rocking as though in pain. “Ekhat do not employ iron alloys in their ship construction.”

    “By some physical means then,” Jihan said. “What can we use?” She touched the barely responsive Hadata. “Think!”

    “We have — grapples,” Hadata finally said. “But they cannot be deployed from inside. We would have to –” She broke off, staring at the rapidly approaching Ekhat wreckage in horror. “– suit up and go — outside — and attach them by hand.”

    “No!” Lliant lurched to his feet. His bruised face was contorted with emotion. “I will not!”

    Jihan wished she had brought poor homely Pyr in the Ekhatlore’s place. She had no doubt her elian’s youngest would have put his hand to anything required without a single protest. “Is this fear?” she said. “From one who is convinced that he is already dead?”

    “I will suit up,” Hadata said quietly. “Even death out there will be better than falling into the sun.”

    “And so will he,” Jihan said, “because if he refuses, I will push him out the airlock in his naked skin!”

    His startled gaze turned to her. He was taller, more heavily built, and she had an injured arm, but she felt the blood pounding in her throat and knew that she had all-out fury on her side. She could see he recognized that too. “Well?”

    Lliant rose and stripped out of his Ekhatlore robes with sharp, angry motions, casting the brocaded fabric aside. Then he and Hadata suited up while Jihan painstakingly maneuvered them ever closer to their objective with delicate firings of their remaining thrusters.

    The Ekhat derelict grew larger and larger in the screen as they approached. It would dwarf them, once they came alongside. Jihan could not take her eyes off it. Were there survivors who had detected the little ship on a docking course that would rendezvous with them? Was anyone left alive to fire upon them?

    If so, the Starwarder, the Ekhatlore, and the Jaolore were about to come nose to nose with the infamous great devils who ate the universe.



    Kaln krinnu ava Krant was pleased to be assigned to an assault craft dispatched to investigate the Ekhat wreckage. Though the Lexington had taken damage, the immense ship had survived with minimal casualties. Compared to the previous battle, in which Krant had lost one vessel in transit, a second to Ekhat fire, and had a third irreparably damaged against only one of their enemy’s ships, this action was a resounding success. The Terra-Captain’s audacity dazzled them all, and these humans — well, they fought much better than Kaln would have ever credited, had she not seen it for herself.

    Mallu was assigned to this mission, too, though Jalta had been left behind with the medicians, recovering from a shoulder wound. She noticed, as Baker Company filed aboard down in one of the hanger bays, most of the rest on this mission were humans. But, there were also a smattering of Jao who had joined Terra Taif and now wore the dark-blue jinau trousers, and they all seemed to be in association. Not perfect, of course. She saw a bit of jostling for position on both sides, not to mention some brashly angled Jao ears, but the two species appeared to have a solid working relationship.

    And, even more intriguing, these humans didn’t look down on Krant either. She remembered how Tully had listened to her ideas about improving the hoist. That would never have happened on a Jao ship, especially one not owned by her kochan. It was possible that humans just didn’t know enough about Jao to understand Krant’s low ranking, but, whatever the reason, the end results were the same. For the first time in her life, she felt like an equal among others outside her kochan.

    Lieutenant Caewithe Miller settled on a bench seat next to Kaln, checking a hand-held. She was diminutive, even for a human, but Kaln had watched her direct her subordinates very capably.

    “Have you ever seen an Ekhat?” the human female asked, turning dead-white eyes with those strange centers upon Kaln. The color varied among humans. This one’s were a shade of blue.

    Kaln’s good ear flattened in surprise and she felt even the damaged one stir a bit. Maybe sensation would return to it after all. “Only dead ones,” she said.

    Miller’s posture seemed almost attentive. “They look huge in the vids.”

    “Most are very large, yes,” Kaln said.

    Miller glanced over at Tully, then grimaced, baring her teeth. “Not as large as Paul Bunyan, I bet.”

    “Pool — Bantyam?” Kaln tried to replicate the sounds, but did not think she got them quite right.

    Warning beeps sounded. The hatch closed, then the assault craft lurched forward, heading for the retracting hanger bay doors. “You have not yet heard of Paul Bunyan,” Miller said, “and Babe the Blue Ox?”

    “Are they members of the Lexington crew?” Kaln had not been concerned with names when she worked down in the magazine with the gun mount crew. Mostly, since coming onboard, she had dealt with Major Tully, and he had never mentioned these particular individuals.

    “No, no,” Miller said. She glanced at a device on her wrist. “Well, we have some time to –” She grimaced again. “– kill, as a human would say, before we reach our objective, so let me tell you about Paul Bunyan and Babe.”

    Kill time? Kaln had heard that humans were time-blind, but why did that make them think they could actually do away with any portion of it? Perhaps they were crazy, after all.

    “This happened long ago,” Miller said, “on Terra, when humans moved into a wilderness and needed to cut down a forest quickly. Paul was what we call a ‘lumberjack.’”



    She went on to relate an improbable but quite interesting tale. Evidently conditions on Terra had once favored the exceptional growth of occasional individuals. On a trading run, Kaln had once seen examples of gigantism on a lush planet that belonged to the kochan of Hij, but those marine creatures were scarce, having been hunted into near extinction. This “blue ox” sounded much bigger anyway. She listened carefully to Miller’s soft voice with its pronounced Terran accent, trying her best to understand, and soon realized that other humans seated close to them were paying attention, too.

    By the end of the narration, some were even adding details, as evidently the female’s memory proved faulty in several respects. This Pool Buntyam supposedly had an enormous appetite and consumed amazing amounts of some comestible called “flapjacks.” Once he had even spilled an entire boatload of a vegetable called “peeze” into a hot spring to create a huge amount of “soup” for his workers.

    Then several jinau, both male, argued vociferously, about the exact size of this “ox,” which, Kaln gathered from the tasks it reportedly carried out, was some sort of beast of burden. One human said it was “seven feet” tall, while the other insisted no, no, it measured “seven feet” just between its eyes.

    Kaln blinked. “What do the records say?”

    Miller exhaled a long sighing breath. “The records from that era were very poorly maintained,” she admitted. “So no one can say who is right.”

    “Perhaps we can find stored images,” Kaln said.

    Miller closed one eye in what seemed to be a deliberate, if baffling, gesture. Her fellows chuffed. “Perhaps,” she said.

    Kaln realized then that they were all amused, even the jinau Jao. Not a word of that improbable story was true. Evidently, humans relished the stringing together of such impossibilities. It was just ollnat, but cleverly done. Kaln had always had a secret fondness for the invention of such tales, even though the practice was considered juvenile. She would remember that for the future and concoct some wild series of events for their ears.

    “Now,” Caewithe Miller said, “would you like to hear the story of Snow White?”

    That equally unlikely tale was just ending when Tully came back, Mallu behind him. “Listen up, people,” he said in his heavily-accented Jao. “We are closing with our target.” He paused, gazing around at the assembled jinau and Krants. “Preliminary readings indicate that there well may be survivors on the derelict.”

    A murmur arose from the humans. The Jao spoke with their bodies instead, indicating unease, fierce-determination, or willingness-to-be-of-use. Kaln realized her own lines and angles had gone to stubborn-pride and made herself assume something less provocative. She had no wish to have her ears boxed and Mallu certainly would have disciplined her, had he noticed.

    “We have about fifteen minutes,” Tully said as the craft fired maneuvering jets. The specific terms were gibberish to Kaln, but she got the sense that the mission would be underway very soon.

    “Make ready,” Tully said. He returned forward.

    You cannot be ready for the Ekhat, she thought. She felt the moment approaching as she studied her fellow Krants. Each had fallen into a single posture now, as had she, as though they all had but a single thought between them: readiness-to-die.



    Mallu got up and followed Tully aft. He’d had an idea and wanted to discuss it. Lingering just outside the cockpit, he caught the Terran’s attention and then Tully motioned him forward into the cramped space separated from the main cabin by a bulkhead.

    “Yes, Krant-Captain?” the human said, settling back into his seat across from the pilot.

    This was a delicate matter, Mallu thought, and he was not a trained negotiator, but Krant had no other official voice here but his. He would just have to do his best. “That derelict is valuable,” he said, his lines gone to desirous-of-favor, for all the good it would do. As nearly as he could tell, humans were oblivious to the niceties of bodyspeak, outside of a few like Caitlin Kralik.

    “Really?” Tully scratched the yellow thatch on his head, then turned to the growing image on the viewscreen. “No one told me that.”

    “By being first to investigate,” Mallu said, “Baker Company will receive booty rights.”

    “Thank you for enlightening me,” Tully said, then picked up a sheaf of papers and leafed through them.

    Now, thought Mallu. He only hoped he had the right words. Krant had not exactly ingratiated itself with this particular Terran so far, but Tully was a member of Aille krinnu ava Terra’s personal service and therefore highly regarded. “But Baker Company is not the only group present on this mission.” He glanced back at the crowded cabin. “Krant is here too, though admittedly in fewer numbers.”

    Tully turned back to him with just a hint of inquiry in his angles. That seeming posture must be only by chance, Mallu cautioned himself, and then pressed on. “Krant suffered a hard blow when we lost three ships to this nebula,” Mallu said. “We are…”

    This would be almost impossible to say to another Jao, but Tully was different. “A poor kochan. Very poor. Our two planets do not produce much in the way of exportable wealth.”

    Tully’s head dipped. “You want a share of the spoils,” he said.

    “Yes, Major,” Mallu said.

    “Is that common practice among the Jao?”

    How else would it be done? Mallu wondered. But he had enough experience with humans by now to realize that some Jao practices he’d always taken for granted, as if they were a law of nature, might have alternatives.

    “Yes. The kochan present at the action divide whatever spoils might be obtained in accordance with their respective numbers.”

    That was… not quite a lie, but close enough to make Mallu uncomfortable. The reality, as all Jao knew, was that numbers as such were only one of the determinant factors involved in these affairs. Status, resources committed, all those things also came into play. Put so many Pluthrak or Narvo or Dano to divide the spoils with an equal number of Jao from Krant or another desperately poor kochan, and the members of the great kochan would come away with most of it.

    But, at least formally, humans placed great store by the social virtues they called “equality” and “fairness.” So perhaps in this situation, Krant might be able to get a better outcome.

    The human pressed his fingertips together and bowed his head, obviously considering. “I do not understand the way these things are handled among the Jao,” he said finally, “and I do not wish to make a mistake, but I will certainly consult with Caitlin Kralik when we return. She is much better versed in such matters.”

    He gazed up then into Mallu’s face. If only Terran ears were more expressive, Mallu thought, then he would have some idea of what Tully was thinking.

    “And I would need to consult with representatives of both of Terra’s taifs about the distribution of any wealth earned in this action,” Tully said. His mouth had a strange quirk. “Perhaps, though, something could be done about your ships. We might even be able to work out some kind of deal to construct new ones to replace those that were lost.”

    “Like the Lexington?” Mallu said, his ears now frankly astonished. With even one ship like the Lexington, Krant would no longer be poor.

    “I think it comes down to association,” Tully said. “Would Krant wish to associate with Terra Taif?”

    Mallu stared at him. Association? With this bizarre new taif, most of whose members were humans and not Jao? Had someone asked him the question before he arrived on Terra, Mallu would have dismissed it immediately as madness. But now…

    He’d only been thinking in terms of getting as big a share for Krant as possible, of whatever spoils might be derived from the Ekhat derelict. But now that Tully had raised the issue of association, Mallu found himself intrigued.

    And then, as he continued to think about it while Tully waited silently, his intrigue deepened. He could see how far removed his initial notions — prejudices, to call things by their right name — had been from reality.

    Item one. Terra Taif was certainly not as wealthy and powerful as one of the great kochan like Narvo or Pluthrak, but it was far more wealthy and powerful than any single-system kochan Mallu had ever heard of. It was certainly wealthier and mightier than Krant, which had been driven to the point of desperation by the loss of three ships, any one of which would have been dwarfed by Lexington. And Mallu knew that Terra Taif was planning a fleet of Lexingtons.



    Item two. For all the derision that most kochan felt toward Terra Taif, the two greatest of those kochan — Pluthrak and Narvo — were already in association with it. The name-founder of the hybrid kochan-to-be was Aille, once a scion of Pluthrak recognized as namth camiti. And while Aille had formally severed his ties to Pluthrak, it was perfectly obvious that the relationship remained close and warm.

    Narvo… The common assumption was that Narvo’s association with Terra was a formality. Something Narvo had been forced into because of the shame brought upon the great kochan by Oppuk. But the more he saw of the situation, the more Mallu was coming to think that Narvo was quite serious about developing the association — if for no other reason than the fact it brought with it, indirectly, an association with Pluthrak.

    How else explain Terra-Captain Dannet? Her abilities as a military leader were now obvious — and must have been obvious to Narvo itself when the kochan sent her here. Surrendered her, and her talents, to the exotic new taif. Talents which, to a kochan like Narvo, were more precious than anything.

    Third item — the Bond. For the first time in Jao history, the Bond of Ebezon had agreed to affiliate with a kochan or taif. While the affiliation was understood to be temporary, there was bound to remain a residue and a closeness even after the affiliation was formally severed. And the Bond was at least as powerful, in military terms, as any of the great kochan, if not perhaps as wealthy.

    It was astonishing, really. Now that experience allowed Mallu to see things clearly, it was obvious that Terra Taif — dismissed by most Jao as an irrelevant freak — was already better positioned in Jao society than the great majority of kochan.

    It was certainly better positioned than Krant! Which meant that Krant would gain greatly from an association with Terra Taif.

    Allowing, of course, for two unknown factors — the prejudice of Krant’s own elders, and the attitudes of Terra itself. Why would they have any great desire to associate with such as Krant?

    As he ruminated, Tully had been watching him closely. Now, he made that lip-twisting gesture — a “smile,” they called it — that seemed the most fluid and varied of all the human gestures.

    “Interesting idea, isn’t it?” said Tully. “I’ll raise it with Caitlin, first chance I get. And, one way or another, I’ll do my best to make sure Krant gets a fair share of the loot.” The lips twisted a different way. “Insofar as you can apply the term ‘loot’ to what looks like a wreck, anyway. Speaking of which…”

    Tully cocked his head sideways a little. Mallu wasn’t certain, but he thought that gesture was the human version of sudden-consideration.

    “We’re supposed to try to capture a live Ekhat,” Tully said.

    “Yes, I know. It is not likely we will succeed.”

    “Won’t break my heart if we don’t, either. But we’re supposed to try, so try we will. But I’ve seen one of those monsters while it was alive — two of them, in fact — and it’d be easier to capture a Tyrannosaurus alive than one of them.”

    Before Mallu could ask, Tully shook his head. “Never mind the reference. Very big predatory animal. The point is, it won’t do any good to point a laser at one of them and say ‘hands up.’ We’ve got to take it down in a way that completely immobilizes it without just killing it.”

    The solution was obvious, of course. Almost impossible to do, but obvious. “We need to shoot off all of its limbs. Otherwise it will suicide.”

    “What I figure — and there’s no way we’ll be able to do that with lasers. So.”

    Tully bestowed on Mallu a variety of big smile — “grin,” he thought it was called — that the Krant-Captain did not think boded well for his immediate future.

    “I’m putting you in charge of the special bell-the-Ekhat detail.”

    Mallu wondered what bells had to do with anything involved. Tully turned away. “Follow me. I want to introduce you to the key members of your team.”

    He led Mallu to a small dining area, what the humans called a “mess hall.” Nine human soldiers and two Jao were sitting at the tables.

    “Bringmann. Kelly. Greer. Front and center.”

    Three of the human soldiers stood up. All of them were male, and two of them were very large for humans.

    Tully waved his hand at Mallu. “I believe you know Krant-Captain Mallu. I’m putting him in charge of you guys. Your team — you’ll love this, boys — is assigned to capture an Ekhat. Alive.”

    The faces of all the human soldiers became distorted. Mallu didn’t recognize any specific body gesture, but the gist of it was clear enough — the human equivalent of the shocked-disbelief posture of the two Jao soldiers.

    Tully shrugged. “Look, the orders come from on high. Don’t take it personally, Bringmann. Mallu’s got experience fighting them and you don’t.”

    The smallest of the three standing jinau nodded.

    “Krant-Captain, these two corporals” — Tully pointed to the two large ones — “are Thomas Kelly and Dennis Greer. They’re the unit’s recoilless rifle specialists.”

    Mallu stared at them. They were easy to tell apart, because Kelly was very dark-skinned. “And a recoilless rifle is…?”

    “Hard to describe. Kelly, Greer, show him.”



    Once Mallu saw the weapons and had their operation explained to him, he felt a surge of sympathy for the Jao soldiers who’d fought in the conquest of Terra. Like most Jao who’d been far from the scene, his impression of Terran military capability had been shaped by the knowledge that they used kinetic weapons almost exclusively. Primitive stuff, as you’d expect for a primitive species.

    Watching what the Lexington’s big guns had done to five Ekhat ships had drastically shifted his views on the matter, of course. But seeing such an obviously deadly version of a kinetic weapon adapted for ground combat brought it even closer to home.

    Such a recoilless rifle — the jinau called it “an 84mm goose”—had originally been designed to destroy human tanks, apparently. But they’d adapted the munitions to serve for shipboard operations. In fact, they had a bewildering variety of munitions, whose distinctions — HEAT, HEP-T, Anti-Personnel Tracer, Armor-Piercing, and there were two or three others — soon had Mallu hopelessly confused.

    It did at least become clear why both of the soldiers were so large, by human standards. The concept of a “recoilless” rifle in microgravity was…

    Very flexible.

    The one named Dennis Greer grinned widely when the subject came up. “Yeah, well. It’s tricky. If you don’t know what you’re doing, firing a goose in null gravity is likely to leave you spinning in circles.”

    “With a busted neck,” added the other one, Thomas Kelly. “It helps, of course, to have as much body mass as possible.”

    Mallu had gotten intrigued by now. The weapons might actually have a chance of attaining their goal. And he could see other uses for them. “Why not use Jao soldiers, then?”

    Both human soldiers chuckled. “Jao don’t really take to the things,” said Kelly.

    “Bunch of snobs, you ask me,” said Greer.

    Mallu looked from one to the other. Then, even though he suspected the subtlety would be missed by the two soldiers, adopted the posture which he thought came closest to the meaning of their chuckles. Amusement-at folly.

    “You have simply never met the right Jao,” he said. “Wait here.”



    He came back shortly with two of his Krant soldiers in tow. Both of them were large by Jao standards, which meant they were much larger than even Kelly and Greer.

    “These are Urta and Naddo.” He pointed out one from the other. “Teach them how to use the gooses.”

    He interpreted the expressions on Kelly and Greer’s faces as the human equivalent of expectation-of-silliness-from-others. “You need not be apprehensive,” he said. “We are Krant. Not — what was the term?”


    “Yes, that one. Tully once told me we are hillbillies. He was rather exasperated, I believe, so he added the terms ’stubborn’ and ‘ignorant’ as qualifiers. But I got the sense that ‘hillbillies’ itself was not derogatory.”

    Kelly’s dark face displayed a large smile. The grin variety of the expression. “Not coming from Major Tully, anyway. You hear it coming from one of my homeys, be a different story.”

    The meaning of the last statement was obscure. But it was clear from the subtle shift in the expressions of the two human soldiers that they were willing to try to teach the two Jao how to use the very un-Jao-like weapons.




    When Mallu reported back to Tully, he found the human officer in the assault craft’s rather small command deck. The monstrous outline of the Ekhat derelict filled the screen now, backlit by the boiling inferno of the system’s sun. The pilot, a human female named Kristal Dalgetty, looked over her shoulder at them. “Strap in, sirs. We are about to fire maneuvering jets.”



    As he strapped himself into his seat, Tully’s mind was on the recent conversation with Mallu, not the approaching Ekhat.

    Association with Krant…

    On the one hand, it was obviously a dirt-poor kochan. Dismissed by most Jao, if not exactly sneered at, and with very little in the way of resources.

    Fine. They were a bunch of backwoods hillbillies. Who cared? Not Tully, for damn sure. He’d spent most of his life as a Resistance fighter in the mountains. If not quite a hillbilly himself, at least a first cousin. Now that he’d fought alongside them, the Krant were okay in his book.

    Besides, Terra Taif was fighting for status and respectability, far more than it needed wealth and resources. The fact was, although few of the Jao kochan were astute enough to realize it, that with its enormous population — Terra was by far the most densely inhabited planet in the known galaxy — and its technical advancement, Terra Taif was already more resource-rich than all but the great kochan.

    What it really needed was simply… Association itself. Terra Taif needed to develop the vast and rich network of connections and alliances and agreements and quid-pro-quos with other kochan that was the single most important fount of power and influence among the Jao. And if that started with bringing into its orbit an impoverished kochan on the fringes of Jao society, so be it.

    Baby steps, and all that. As the assault craft neared the hideous-looking Ekhat wreck, Tully reviewed one hoary axiom after another.

    The longest voyage starts with a single step. You do what you can.

    There were a lot of them. Enough to keep his nerves steady, thankfully. That damn derelict really was uglier than sin. What was it about the Ekhat, anyway? The maniacs couldn’t seem to do or make anything that didn’t have a horrible appearance. If they made mashed potatoes, the mashed potatoes would look scary.



    Jihan was anxious as she struggled into stiff protective clothing so that they could exit the vessel and attach the tethers. None of her experience as a Starsifter included actually working outside a ship, though, as a safety measure, she had been trained in the correct procedure. Hadata assisted her, but Lliant had turned his back, steadfastly not-seeing her, as though he had the right to oyas-to in this situation, which he most assuredly did not.

    It did not matter, she told herself, easing the damaged arm into its sleeve. Nothing mattered except that they survive the next few breaths, and then the ones following. And, to do so, they had to clamp this ship to the derelict before they tumbled into the sun’s photosphere or all the bad manners in the universe would make no difference.

    Hadata settled Jihan’s helmet onto her shoulders, then closed the seals. She heard a whoosh as the suit’s systems activated, then she was alone with the sound of her own breathing. It seemed quite thunderous, but that was probably a byproduct of her tightly-controlled fear.

    The three of them walked clumsily then to the airlock, Lliant hanging back. She motioned him in before her, not trusting that he would actually leave the ship if she lost sight of him, even briefly. Once he was in the airlock, she stepped in and closed the door. The system cycled, and then they were face to face with the sun with its overwhelming, blazing presence and the looming Ekhat derelict. Despite the energy signatures she had detected from within, the wreck was holed, pitted, and scorched. It looked thoroughly dead from this vantage point.

    They clipped their tethers to the Starwarder ship and then activated the suits’ tiny maneuvering jets to launch themselves across. It was terrible and wonderful, all at the same time. Though the situation was indeed dire, Jihan felt strangely free in that moment, and the sun, on the other side of the wreck, was gloriously huge, swirling and flowing, in constant motion, almost alive itself. The nebula’s gases prevented those on the planet’s surface from ever seeing the solar system’s star this clearly.

    “It is so beautiful,” she murmured, then realized she was going to miss the derelict and corrected her angle with a burst from her jets.

    “You are insane,” Lliant said, landing awkwardly feet-first on the wreck. “It is no wonder the Starsifters cast you out!”

    Jihan made contact too, flexing her knees, then sprawled full-length across the alien hull, wringing a wave of pain from her injured arm. Hadata, wiser and more experienced, had halted just short of the wreck and now hovered, seeking the best spot to anchor her cable.

    Each tether terminated in an explosive bolt. Of course, Jihan thought, if anything were still alive in there, sinking bolts into their hull might attract unwelcome attention. But they had no choice. It was either this or die in very short order. No matter how beautiful the sun was, she had no wish to dive into its heart.

    Hadata activated her bolt and it burst through the plating. She tested it, then turned to Lliant. “Hurry up,” the Starwarder said.

    He knelt to position his, then fumbled the release, lost hold of the tether, and floated away from the hull. He was terrified, Jihan thought, feeling almost sorry for him. The Ekhatlore had studied the great devils all his life, but had never expected to come this close to them.

    She edged closer to assist him. With an angry oath, he pushed her away. She spun off the surface, but fortunately had enough presence of mind to keep hold of her tether. Even without gravity, spinning, so that her visual field was filled with the ship — the derelict — the ship — in rapid succession made her dizzy. After a moment, though, she regained stability with her maneuvering jets.

    “Idiot!” Hadata was saying. “You could have killed her!”

    “What does it matter? We are all dead anyway!” With a choked cry, Lliant cast away his tether and Hadata launched herself to retrieve it. Face averted, the Ekhatlore floated above the derelict, arms clenched across his chest.

    “You certainly will be,” Jihan said, as the blood pounded through her veins, “if you try something like that again. I do not care how frightened you are!” Behind her lay the immense blackness of space laced with red and blue gasses from the nebula. Before her hung the sun and the damaged derelict. It was all overwhelming.

    “Frightened?” Lliant twisted clumsily to face her, more than a body length above the pitted hull. Through his helmet, she could see how his aureole was flattened against his face. “The dead cannot be frightened.”

    Hadata fired the second bolt into the derelict, then turned to Jihan. “Let me have yours,” she said.

    “No, I can do it,” Jihan said and maneuvered with her jets to return to the wreck. She selected a third site for the tether, roughly equidistant from the two bolts already seated, and had just positioned hers against the hull when a suited creature thrust its head through one of the jagged holes.

    Lliant shrieked and then jetted back toward the Starwarder vessel.

    Hands shaking, Jihan fired the third bolt into the hull.

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