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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Monday, February 8, 2010 18:43 EST



    Jihan tested the line with her good arm and found it solid, then the creature — whatever it was — bowled into her and she floated away from the derelict again.

    She twisted around. Lliant was headed toward the airlock and Jihan had no doubt that he was fully capable of sealing her and Hadata outside to save his own skin. “Go after him!” she called to the Starwarder.

    Her attacker was too small to be an Ekhat, according to the images she had studied. Neither did it resemble a Jao. Its torso was long and sinuous with four stubby limbs a quarter of the length of her own, and it was shrouded in a white casing with a clear bubble on the end, not a proper environment suit with a helmet like the three Lleix wore. It would be about a third of her height, she thought, if they stood face to face, and had unblinking red eyes.

    “What in the name of the Boh is it?” Hadata called as the beast ineffectively pummeled Jihan with all four limbs.

    Terrified, Jihan kicked it away so that it sailed toward the end of the derelict. She was drifting backwards then and had to stabilize her position with the maneuvering jets.

    When she could spare the attention again, Lliant had reentered the Starwarder ship and Hadata had propelled herself halfway back. Jihan feared the creature would right itself, as she had, and attack again, but it just skimmed on past the end of the derelict, limbs flailing. She watched, sick with fear, the rasp of her own overwrought breathing harsh in her ears.

    Her attacker had no control devices, she realized, nor any safety line anchoring it to the ship. By thoughtlessly jumping her like that, it had just condemned itself to orbit the sun for a short time, then burn to cinders.

    “Come on!” Hadata called. “There may be more of them!”

    Shaking, Jihan used her jets to follow the other two back to their own ship. She saw Lliant reach the controls inside the airlock first. He appeared to be trying to trigger the seal without waiting for the other two, but Hadata got there in time to jerk him off and take over. Once Jihan made it inside the airlock, the Starwarder ran the cycle and then they were safe again, for the moment.

    The artificial gravity inside the cabin felt wonderful, though the air was cold and stale. She no longer had the terrible sensation of endlessly falling and the walls blessedly protected her from the sight of the bloated sun, so dangerously near.

    “What was that creature?” Hadata said, as she helped Jihan struggle one-armed out of her suit.

    Lliant was already standing naked before a console, his shoulders hunched, his backbone knobby beneath his beautifully silver skin. He reached for his robes with trembling hands. “It was probably an Anj,” he said, “one of the client species of The Melody.”

    With a jerk, he pulled the brocaded robes over his arms and shoulders, then fiddled with the draping, taking great care with the folds as though such niceties mattered out here, so very far from eyes that judged one’s worth by such things. “The beasts are considered little more than vermin by their Ekhat masters, entirely disposable. Ekhatlore has never been certain that they were more than half-sapient, trainable, but not independently intelligent.”

    So it had given its life for masters who cared nothing for it just to perish in that gruesome fashion. Jihan shuddered.

    “Now, what, Eldest?” Hadata asked, as Jihan kicked off the clumsy boots that were part of the environment suit.

    She had been so focused upon avoiding their headlong plunge into the blazing heart of the sun, she hadn’t thought much beyond stabilizing the ship. Jihan half-fell into one of the empty chairs, legs shaking, her aureole barely able to flutter, and stared at the screen. Her wrenched arm ached and she cradled it across her chest.

    “We should check the most probable vectors between here and Valeron,” she said finally. “Even though we cannot receive messages, at least part of our request for assistance may have transmitted. Perhaps one of the Starsifter or Starwarder ships is on its way to pick us up.”

    Hadata went back to the pilot’s station, and then Jihan regarded Lliant, remembering how in his panic he had thrust her away. Any number of factors could have intervened, and then she could be falling into the sun along with the unfortunate Anj this very moment. Anger clouds the reason, she told herself. Sayr would have known what to say in this situation, how to impart wisdom without irrevocably shaming the miscreant.

    But all she could think of was the endless depths and the roaring furnace to which the Ekhatlore had nearly doomed her. For his part, he hunched over his console, punching up stats, taking useless readings. She wanted to strike him, but that was not what an Eldest did when youngers behaved badly, and so she held onto that thought until her shaking subsided.

    “We need food,” she said finally and flicked her fingers at Lliant. “Go through the supplies and see what is available.”

    He rose without protest and went to the rear of the cabin.

    Suddenly Hadata leapt out of her seat, staring at her viewscreen.

    “Is someone coming?” Jihan asked. She struggled to her feet, wincing at her wrenched arm, then crossed the cabin to peer at the screen herself.

    Hadata’s hands twitched at her robes. “Yes,” she said slowly, “but not one of ours.” The Starwarder’s eyes narrowed so that Jihan could barely see their gleaming blackness. “Three ships, all larger than any of our Starwarder or Starsifter designs, approaching on a vector that indicates they launched from that enormous newcomer.”

    The aliens had dispatched their own ships? Jihan tried to make sense of that. “What do they want?” Not to rescue three desperate Lleix, she was certain of that. Even if they’d intercepted their call for assistance, they wouldn’t have been able to translate it.

    Lliant returned with three dried rations packets in his hands. “They come to destroy what is left of the Ekhat vessel, of course,” he said bleakly. “The very same hulk to which we just anchored ourselves. With care, they will be able to take us all out with a single volley.”

    He was most likely right, Jihan thought. What other reason could there be? “And, yet,” she said, “if they merely want to destroy the derelict, could they not safely target it from their primary vessel? Why send three smaller, less heavily armed ships into potential danger? After such a battle, they can be under no misapprehension that the Ekhat will not attack if they are able.”

    “Perhaps they intend to parley with them,” Hadata said, “or take prisoners.”

    “No one takes Ekhat prisoner,” Lliant said with a weary shrug. “When they are cornered, they terminate themselves. They cannot bear the taint of contact with what they consider to be lower species. They even terminate themselves on the rare occasions that they initiate communication.”

    “We should stay in our ship and see what happens,” Hadata said. “We are quite small compared to the derelict. It is entirely possible that they will not even notice us, concealed as we are in its shadow.”



    “And then what?” Jihan said. “We skulk here and die in perfect peace?”

    Hadata’s aureole sank.

    “They are the Ekhat’s enemy,” Jihan continued, “as are we. They might render us aid, if we so requested.”

    “By the size and design of that monstrous ship, all we know for certain about them is that they are powerful.” Lliant turned in his seat to stare at them with smoldering black eyes. “Power cares nothing for the weak. Whether they detect us or not, they will destroy us too when they take out the Ekhat wreck. Not that it matters.” He twisted away again. “We are already dead.”

    “Stop saying that!” Jihan’s anger resurged. “You sound like one of the hopeless unchosen from the dochaya, worse even! I have found them at least willing to put their hands to whatever is required, despite their unfortunate situation. I should have brought one of them instead!”

    Hadata gave her a questioning look, but she ignored it. “I think,” Jihan said, “we must contact these aliens, or else we will die, either like that Anj burning up in the sun, or when our air and power and supplies are exhausted.”

    “But what could we possibly say to them,” Hadata said, “and how will we communicate? They most certainly will not speak Lleix or Ekhat.”

    “When the moment comes,” Jihan said, “we will find a way to make ourselves understood.” She tapped a finger against her forehead. “Two of us will go aboard the wreck to observe, if they do indeed dock with it. The other will stay behind.”

    “I will stay here,” Lliant said.

    “No, you will not,” Jihan said. “There is no way I can trust you out of my sight.”



    The lead assault craft jinau pilot, Kristal Dalgetty, spotted what looked like a hanger bay on the sunward side of the derelict, so Tully authorized that approach.

    “We will have to blast the door, sir,” she said. “And that’s bound to attract attention if any of them are left and they haven’t already detected us.”

    “I’d bet a hundred dollars they know we’re here.” Tully stuck his head around the bulkhead. “Krant-Captain, come forward.”

    Mallu lurched to his feet and made his way past the rows of bench seats. All the eyes followed him, both Terran and Jao. “Yes, Major?”

    “You have more experience at this sort of thing,” Tully said. “What recommendations do you have about boarding an Ekhat ship?”

    “Avoid it if at all possible,” Mallu said immediately. Green lightning danced in those black, black eyes.

    Tully barked a laugh, then cut himself off when it was all too apparent that Mallu had not intended the comment as humorous. “Unfortunately, in this case, we cannot avoid boarding since those are our orders.”

    Mallu sighed. That, at least, was a mannerism that Jao shared with humans and usually signified about the same thing. His ears canted at half-mast. “That should be a storage bay for the smaller ships they employ from time to time. They will defend it vigorously, if any of the crew have survived, but it should not have defensive weapon emplacements inside.”

    “All right, then, strap in,” Tully said. “We will use that area as our insertion point.” Mallu retreated as the pilot relayed the commands to the other two assault craft.

    It required considerable laser fire from two of the three assault ships before the door was compromised. When the debris field cleared, Tully could see it hadn’t burned cleanly off, but hung from what must be the Ekhat version of hinges. “Pretty solid construction,” he murmured, gazing at the screen.

    Mallu returned, his body gone to what Tully was fairly certain was simple, unadulterated question.

    “We can get in,” Tully said, “but not by landing the ships. We will have to transfer outside.” He considered the situation. It wouldn’t do to risk their transport to the Ekhat’s nonexistent mercy anyway.

    He nodded at Dalgetty. “Patch me in with the other two ships.”

    The pilot bent her sandy-haired head, working for a moment, then gave Tully a thumbs-up.

    “This is Major Tully,” he said. “We will board the Ekhat derelict, starting with this ship. Once all combat personnel have unloaded, pilots are to stand off two kilometers and wait for my orders.”

    He hesitated. “I know it will be difficult, but if anything is left alive over there, we want to keep them alive. Do what you can to make it happen, but not at the sacrifice of your own hide. Any questions?”

    Nobody spoke up, so he had Dalgetty shut off the circuit. “Take us in,” he said, then went back to join his troops.



    Third-Note-Ascending marked the approach of the three vessels in the viewing tank, which still functioned in intermittent flickers. It was growing cold in the pod as environmental controls failed.

    Five ships lost! Against a solitary alien vessel, albeit one large and heavily armed. It was hard to reconcile that development with any melody. The lost note still warbled inside her mind.

    But now, when she could no longer go after them, the sub-sapients were coming to her. Anticipation sang through her blood, lightening her burden. She would meet them with Half, along with what Anj remained, and demonstrate what it meant to be part of the unfolding Ekha.

    She tapped into her protective suit’s audio circuits and directed all surviving serviles to assemble in the Conductor’s Pod. Their certain terror was a pleasant leitmotif to the broad underlying bass line of the coming havoc. She had slaughtered all who had dared enter her presence earlier. The Anj knew that, but they would come anyway, because such was their place in the great composition.

    Joy surged through Third and at least a hint of it must have made it through to Half, because he suddenly rejoined her. Their mental fields flared, then snapped back together. With so much to look forward to, it was hard even to regret the lost note.

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