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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Friday, February 12, 2010 07:12 EST



    Tully had had a fair amount of training using suit jets to maneuver in open space. “Fair amount,” at least, as his Jao instructors measured such things — which Tully himself thought woefully inadequate. But, there it was. Just one of a multitude of differences, some blatant and some subtle, between the way humans and Jao looked at things.

    So, he spent a fair amount of his time passing from the assault craft to the Ekhat wreck cursing those same Jao instructors. He jetted over with the first group, as a display of leadership, although he mostly succeeded in delaying them. At one point, Mallu had to rescue him from one particularly ill-timed burst of his maneuvering jets.

    Good thing he did, too, because otherwise Tully would have passed out of the shadow of the Ekhat wreck into full sunlight. That could have gotten dicey, very quickly. Theoretically, the suits could withstand solar radiation this intense for several minutes. But that was theory, and the theory of Jao engineers, at that. The suit was of human manufacture but much of the design was Jao — and Jao engineers had notions concerning “safety margins” that humans considered preposterous.

    His jinau troops, along with the Krants, followed him silently, though he could just imagine the cursing that must be going on inside their heads also. But he didn’t have much sympathy for them. Every soldier in his unit, human and Jao alike, had had quite a bit more training in ship-to-ship assault than he had. What made the whole thing ironic, in a bitter sort of way that Tully didn’t find the least bit amusing, was that Tully himself had ordered the extensive training regimen. And had then — here he took some time to curse assorted civilian powers-that-be — been taken away from the training himself so that he could go play diplomat with the Resistance.

    He saved a reasonable portion of his silent cursing for Terra-Captain Dannet, whom he’d enjoy giving a kick in the proverbial pants for placing his people in this situation. A few of the Lexington’s well placed sabot rounds could have sent this hulk spiraling down into the sun where anything still twitching in there would never have troubled Jao or human again.

    But they wanted to freaking talk to them? Ekhat were howling mad. Even Tully, who had once been dragged along on a mission to parley with the maniac faction that called itself the Interdict, knew that. How could Dannet be deluded enough to think anyone could actually have a conversation with one?

    He pulled himself through the opening they had spotted that seemed to lead into the wreck’s interior. It was a big, jagged tear in the alien ship’s wall. From the looks of the damage, the tear had been caused by a massive internal explosion. The walls had been blown outward, not inward. One or more sabot rounds must have ignited something inside the ship when they pierced the walls.

    That wouldn’t have been hard to do. One of the vivid memories Tully had of his one visit to a functioning Ekhat vessel was the sheer stink of the thing. The interior of Ekhat ships were filled with organic compounds that no human or even Jao commander would have tolerated for a moment. Leaving aside the stench, such poorly-contained substances were dangerous. But leave it to the Ekhat to fly around the galaxy in what amounted to a gasoline-filled tin can.

    And they wanted to talk to these maniacs?

    About what? “Why are you crazy, Mr. Ekhat?” If they got an answer, it would be incomprehensible anyway.

    A large number of his soldiers were already inside the wreck. Most of them, in fact; Tully’s “lead” had turned into a trail in the course of his clumsy suit-jetting across from the assault craft.

    “The area is secure, sir,” said Lieutenant Miller.

    Tully took a little time to look around. What seemed to be green emergency lights glimmered along the curving walls, providing a minimal sickly illumination. They appeared to be in a hangar of some kind, judging from the cavernous size of the room and its contents. The interior was littered with twisted hulks that might have once been small ships, all drifting in a giant mishmash because the artificial gravity had failed. It looked like an automobile junkyard put through a giant blender. Bodies of creatures floated here and there.

    One of them was recognizably Ekhat, despite being very badly damaged. The sheer size of the carcass was enough to establish its identity. According to the Jao, no other sapient species that they’d ever encountered was even close to being the physical size of the Ekhat. But most of the corpses were obviously not Ekhat. They were the torn and mangled bodies of creatures smaller than humans. Gray bodies, from what Tully could see through tears in their covering; long torsos, stubby arms and legs. The one face he could see that wasn’t badly damaged reminded him of a weird cross between a caterpillar’s head and that of an English bulldog.

    But, no matter the species, the corpses had all suffered severe decompression on top of a lot of battle damage and were, in a word, disgusting. Gore, some of it a viscous white, but mostly an unsettling off-shade of red, drifted in globules through the debris.

    Even Tully, who had fought with the Resistance for years and seen his share of death and injuries, found his stomach queasy. Focus! he told himself.

    “All right, people. Let’s move out toward that opening over there.” Realizing, as soon as he said the words, that many of his soldiers couldn’t see where he was pointing, he added: “Ten o’clock from the opening we came through.”

    “What is ‘ten o’oclock’?” demanded one of the Jao, mangling the English term badly. It sounded like Kaln’s voice.

    Tully tried to find a Jao equivalent but couldn’t. “Never mind,” he said. “Miller, take the lead. The rest of you, just follow.”

    The redheaded lieutenant led her unit toward the distant opening. “Look for ones in spacesuits,” Tully added. “Nothing could have survived in here without one.”

    “Yes, sir,” said Miller patiently. The tone of her voice, though, practically dripped exasperation for superior officers who insisted on stating the obvious.

    Tully chuckled. Damn, he liked that woman. Too bad they were in the same chain of command.

    A strobing green flash suddenly came out of somewhere. Near the dark opening, but not from within it. The laser blast charred a strut not far from Miller’s head. She ducked into cover immediately, behind one of the wrecked vehicles in the hangar, and so did the soldiers following her. Swearing, Tully jetted toward them and tried to spot the attacker in there amongst the flotsam.

    “We got a live one!” someone shouted. The rest of the jinau took cover behind chunks of wrecked vehicles. That wasn’t always easy, because everything in there down to the smallest piece of scrap was in motion.

    Before Tully could spot the location of the sniper, it all became a moot point. A wave of small white-suited forms wearing jet harnesses appeared from the far end. More green energy beams speared the dimness. A human screamed, but Tully couldn’t tell who was hit.

    Tully took cover himself, behind a nearby half-destroyed… whatever-it-was. For all he knew, the Ekhat equivalent of an oversized toaster oven. His jinau were already returning fire. A lot of fire, way more than was coming at them.

    Tully was pretty sure they weren’t facing anything worse than a hastily organized sally by a few survivors. They might all be slaves — Anj, they were called — with not a single Ekhat among them. But from this angle and distance, he couldn’t really tell anything. He kicked his jets back on and began working his way through the debris field, trying to get a glimpse of what, or who, had come at them.

    He wasn’t any more adept at maneuvering the suit through an enclosed space cluttered with haphazard wreckage than he had been maneuvering it through the vastness of space. But at least his clumsiness wasn’t so blindingly obvious to anyone watching.




    Jihan and Lliant returned to the Ekhat derelict, entering through the same hole through which the Anj had previously attacked. Her aureole was positively plastered to her head with dread. It was like crawling into the mouth of a monster, asking to be eaten. But no matter how bad the situation was, she told herself, you could only die once. Get on with it!

    She pushed Lliant along ahead of her, never letting him elude her direct sight. The two of them floated through buckled corridors littered with grotesquely decompressed corpses. They were mostly Anj, but they did come across three carcasses of the great devils themselves. Spatters of white and purplish blood fouled their faceplates as they passed and could not be avoided. Even dead, with their limbs askew and their eyes ruptured, Ekhat were terrifying. If for no other reason, because they were so huge.

    Without atmosphere, there was no sound, of course, but she suddenly detected vibration in one of the walls when she steadied herself at a corner. Something was happening, not too far ahead. She motioned Lliant in that direction. Then, by keeping one trembling hand on the gory bulkhead, she traced the vibrations’ source and headed that way. They finally emerged onto a platform which looked down upon some sort of huge open chamber for storing small ships.

    Fighting raged below amidst the pieces of shattered vessels. A small cluster of white-suited Anj were firing at a larger number of enemies from behind some wreckage. The Ekhat’s little serviles were outnumbered and obviously getting the worst of it. She pulled herself forward to get a better look — then something coming from behind knocked her into the wall.

    Her head impacted her helmet. Pain rocketed through her neck and shoulders, especially bad in her already wrenched arm. Gasping, Jihan twisted around and met the searing red gaze of a suited-up Ekhat, staring down at her from a short distance away. There was a second Ekhat, too, and they were accompanied by a crowd of seething Anj in their protective white coverings.

    She was frozen. Those eyes were mad, burning with unreasoning hatred.

    Lliant, who also had been shouldered aside, seemed frozen in place also.

    But, for whatever reason — probably unknowable — the Ekhat ignored the two Lleix. The huge forms swept past them and the Ekhat dove off the platform toward the fighting raging below. The little mob of Anj followed. They ignored the two Lleix cowering against a wall also. Following their masters’ lead in every respect, apparently.

    Once the last Anj plunged off the platform, Jihan took a gasping breath. She hadn’t inhaled at all, she realized, during the time she’d been in the presence of the Ekhat.

    From the shaky sound of his voice, Lliant had been just as terrified as she was. But at least he hadn’t panicked and tried to run. “I think,” the Ekhatlore said, breathing hard, “we will be able to observe better from that part of the platform.” He pointed to their left, where there was an overhang that would give them some shelter.

    He’d even kept his wits, for a wonder. She activated her jets and headed to the overhang. Once there, she looked down. Flashes of light illuminated the dimness but it was difficult to follow the action without the references of a solid up or down, or any sort of noise to draw one’s attention. There were only laser flashes in the swirling gloom, and fleeting glimpses of the combatants.

    There was something else, too, but Jihan couldn’t determine its source or nature. A number of very bright flashes, yellowish instead of green. They were much brighter than the laser blasts, whose only illumination was caused by the fact that there was still some gas and dust in the chamber.

    Then she spotted the figure of one of the creatures fighting the Ekhat and their Anj slaves. It was bipedal, wearing a dark-colored spacesuit and was quite small, whatever it was. Not as small as an Anj but definitely smaller than a Lleix, much less an Ekhat. She couldn’t see any of its features, because of the dim lighting.

    As she watched, the creature brought up some sort of weapon and she saw that bright yellow flash coming from one end. A large number of flashes, she now saw, in very rapid succession.

    Then the whole interior of the cavernous chamber was lit by some sort of flare. For the first time, Jihan could see clearly.

    The sight paralyzed her again, for a moment. Down below, near the center of the chamber, the two Ekhat were in full fury. Their six great limbs extended, claws open, their hideous mouths agape — quite easy to see, with the transparent globes the Ekhat favored for helmets — and their red eyes glaring.

    But the terror passed, almost at once, replaced by wonder. As she watched, the gigantic Ekhat forms began disintegrating.

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