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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Twenty Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 21:09 EST



    Tully bestowed a silent blessing on Caewithe Miller. The quick-witted lieutenant had fired a flare. Finally, they could see clearly.

    The first thing he saw were the two enormous Ekhat storming into the chamber. God, he’d forgotten how big the damn things were! It was like facing some sort of mammoth-sized arachnids.

    But before Tully even had time to finish gritting his teeth, Mallu and the special unit were already coming forward to face the monsters. Say what you would about the stiff-necked Krant, they were tough as nails. Tully took a moment to bestow another silent blessing, this one on hillbillies of whatever species.

    The first to fire an 84mm recoilless rifle was one of the two Jao whom Mallu had added to the team. Urta or Naddo, from that distance he couldn’t tell which.

    Tully was impressed. With only the sketchiest and most rudimentary training, the Jao managed to hit his target dead on. The head of the second and somewhat smaller Ekhat pretty much came apart. The monster’s brain — or whatever did for an equivalent — was destroyed instantly. The Ekhat’s six huge limbs splayed out and the monster began a slow cartwheel toward the far distant wall of the chamber, spraying blood and bits of what were presumably brains everywhere.

    Hot damn! One down, one to go.

    But Mallu shared none of his pleasure. The invective that followed was more colorful than anything Tully had ever heard coming from a Jao. He couldn’t even follow most of it.

    “– brainless crecheling, Naddo! You’ll be lucky if you don’t get served up as” — a term Tully didn’t know came here; several of them, he thought; probably along the lines of stinking filthy dog — “food! Supposed to capture them, you idiot!”

    But the object of his ire might very well not have heard him at all. Naddo had obviously not taken to heart the warnings he must have gotten from the two human corporals. “Recoilless” was an almost mystically vague term, applied to any sort of projectile weapon used in null gravity. The Jao soldier who’d fired that Deadeye Dick shot to the head was doing his own cartwheel toward the opposite wall. And not a slow one, either.

    The other Jao fired. Urta, that would be. He missed the surviving Ekhat altogether and blew one of the nearby little slaves into pieces. And…

    Began his own none-too-slow cartwheel toward a distant wall.

    “– scrubbing decks till you keen in misery,” continued Mallu, “you worthless” — here followed a number of Jao terms Tully was unfamiliar with. Probably the names of animals native to the Krant planet. Filthy, loathsome, disgusting vermin, at a guess.

    Mallu, normally even-tempered, was obviously in a fury. More than anything he’d ever said, it was that which drove home to Tully just how desperately poor his kochan was. The Krant really needed whatever spoils value would come from capturing a live Ekhat.

    Then Thomas Kelly fired. Mallu’s tirade cut off abruptly. The human corporal’s shot struck the surviving Ekhat at what amounted to a knee joint. The lower part of the limb was blown off and sent spinning rapidly at the same wall toward which Urta was headed.

    Okay. One down, five to go. If they could sever all six of the monster’s legs, they could probably take it alive. Whether or not that would lead to any sort of communicable interrogation was another matter. Tully thought that was about as likely as the proverbial snowball in hell. But it wasn’t his problem — or the Krants. They’d just been set to the task of catching the critter. Somebody else could try to figure out how to talk to the damn thing.

    Unfortunately, the success of Kelly’s shot made the rest of it harder. Some of the impact of that shot had been absorbed by the bulk of the Krant’s body, of course. And while the huge creature hadn’t been sent into the rapid spin of its now-severed leg, it was still sent spinning.

    A slow spin, true — but an 84mm goose wasn’t really a sharpshooter’s weapon. The damn thing was designed to destroy tanks, not shoot apples off spinning little William Tell’s head.

    Or was William Tell the guy who shot the bow? Or crossbow, whatever it was. Tully couldn’t remember the stupid legend, which he didn’t believe anyway.

    But Dennis Greer’s shot, coming right on the heels of that thought, proved him wrong. Or maybe the corporal was just lucky. Tully didn’t care. Either way, another lower limb was severed and sent on its merry blood-spewing way.

    Greer’s 84mm round had blown off the rear leg on the same side as the leg that Kelly had taken off. If they’d been under gravity conditions, the monster would have toppled to the floor and been effectively immobilized. That couldn’t happen in null gravity, of course, but the Ekhat was still pretty effectively crippled. Half-stunned, obviously, if nothing else. One of the wretched little slaves leapt to its master’s side, trying to stem the bleeding of the front limb. The Ekhat rewarded it by taking off its head with one snap of the immense claws on its surviving front limb. Then, seized the torso and smashed it against the deck.

    Why? Maddened by pain, maybe. Or maybe just murderous-maniac bat-crazy Ekhat. Who knew?

    Or cared. Not Tully. All he wanted was that thing down and legless. What was most important was that, by sheer good luck, the monster’s slam against the deck had largely nullified its spin. As a target, it was almost stationary.

    As Kelly promptly demonstrated by firing a shot that took off one of the limbs on the Ekhat’s opposite side. Three down, three to go. Of course, inevitably, the impact sent the Ekhat into a slow spin again. It was not a perfect universe.

    Belatedly, it occurred to Tully that the problem with such a rough multi-limb amputation was that the monster would just bleed out. But there didn’t seem to be much of its hideous-colored ichor coming out of the shredded limbs. Most likely — as was true of human and Jao fighting suits — the Ekhat’s suit was designed to cut off blood flow in the event a limb was severed.

    Humans and Jao used what amounted to automatic tourniquets for the purpose. The Ekhat being Ekhat, they probably used cauterization. But it didn’t matter. Either way, there was a good chance the creature would survive having its six limbs blown off.

    Guiltily, Tully realized he’d been so pre-occupied by the fight with the two Ekhat that he’d ignored what else might be happening in the cavern. But, looking around, he relaxed. Miller had taken charge of that fight, and he could see she and her people were mopping up what was left of the Anj without much trouble.

    They’d never been much trouble, really. Tully could only see two human casualties. One was obviously dead, the suit ruptured and the body surrounded by a cloud of blood-mist. But from the way the medics were working on the other one of them, Tully didn’t think he or she was badly wounded. The Anj, he now realized — these Anj, anyway — had never served the Ekhat as the kind of Janissary soldiers the Jao had been. They were probably just ship-handlers, as inept in a hand-to-hand fight like this as any similar group of human flight engineers would have been.



    He had to fight down a completely inappropriate giggle then. He’d had a sudden image of human geeks sallying forth to do combat in ill-fitting spacesuits with pocket protectors.

    He was helped in stifling the giggle by the sight of Mallu. Talk about maniacs! The Krant-Captain had launched himself toward the writhing Ekhat with four other Jao.

    Was he mad? That pair of claws could cut through Jao battle armor about as easily as it had taken off the head of the slave. The kind of light armor on a spacesuit, anyway.

    But there was a method to Mallu’s method, Tully realized, once the Jao struck the Ekhat. Between his mass and that of the other four Jao who hit the huge body a split-second later, they drove the Ekhat against a large nearby vehicle of some kind. If it was a vehicle at all, which wasn’t clear. The design of the thing had a closer resemblance to a jungle gym than any vehicle Tully could think of.

    But that design was perfect for Mallu’s purpose. The badly-injured body of the Ekhat, driven into the object by the momentum of five armored Jao warriors, was effectively immobilized. It wasn’t spinning any longer, and while a bit of spin had been imparted to the vehicle-cum-jungle-gym, the object was too massive to be moving much.

    Kelly and Greer’s experience had enabled them to counter the recoil of the “recoilless” rifles, unlike what had happened to Urta and Naddo. They pushed off from nearby supports at the same time they fired the weapons. Kelly had used a deck stanchion, both times; Greer had used the bulk of a large wrecked vehicle. That pretty much counter-acted the recoil. So they were both was back already, and got to very close range, just barely out of reach of the remaining limbs.

    He fired again. Another knee-equivalent was turned into fleshy ruin and another lower limb was sent flying. Greer fired and the same happened to the limb next to it. The Ekhat’s mouth, clearly visible in the helmet, opened in what looked like a screech. Then, with the one clawed limb remaining to it, the Ekhat began smashing at its helmet.

    It was trying to suicide, Tully realized. And while that helmet seemed very sturdy, it wouldn’t stand up for very long. Not given the insane strength with which the Ekhat was beating itself.

    No way to shoot the knee joint, either. Or was it the elbow? Tully neither knew nor cared. Not the way it was waving around now.

    Mallu must have reached the same conclusion at the same time. Mallu shouted something in Jao that Tully didn’t catch. Then — Jao could be just as crazy as Ekhat, sometimes, he and all four of his soldiers launched themselves at the waving claws.

    They caught them — more or less; snagged them, anyway — and for just a moment the limb was immobilized.

    Greer had come to literally point-blank range. He couldn’t risk aiming at the knees/elbows, because the Jao were close. So he took off the whole limb, right below what amounted to a shoulder.

    A cloud of blood engulfed him. Mallu and the four other Jao, still holding the claws, drifted away. The Ekhat seemed to shrivel, like an insect caught in a flame. Then, its mouth agape in that same screech — what Tully took for a screech, anyway — the monster began beating its head against the object in which it was pinned. Still trying to suicide, even with no limbs left.

    But “trying” was the operative term, Tully saw. Even a creature as huge and powerful as an Ekhat couldn’t smash open a helmet designed to withstand combat in space, when it only has its torso muscles to work with and lacked any effective leverage.

    And not even an immense and maniacally murderous Ekhat could remain conscious for very long, with all six legs severed. It had to be suffering badly from its own version of shock. Tully could see the mouth grow slack and the eyes turn a dimmer shade of red. A few seconds later, the creature was still.

    So much for that. Now. How to keep the damn thing from bleeding to death? The Ekhat’s suit had stopped the ichor-flow from the first five severed limbs. But the blast that took off the last limb, coming right at the shoulder, had created too large a wound for the suit’s own resources. Ichor was spewing out, just like it would from a human or Jao arterial wound.

    Mallu came up with the answer to that. A temporary solution, anyway. Whether it would keep the thing alive for very long was hard to say.

    Lasers hadn’t been of much use when it came to capturing the Ekhat. But they did just fine at cauterizing the monster’s wound. True, any orthopedic and plastic surgeons assigned the task of restoring the Ekhat to its proper shape and vigor afterward would have cursed Tully and his crew. But Tully could live with that burden for… ever and ever and ever.

    Miller came up to him. “They’re all dead, sir. The slaves, I mean. Except for” — she pointed at a cluster of soldiers—”three of them over there. When the last Ekhat went down, they were the only ones left. They quit, then. Sorta turned into pumpkins, in fact. Dropped their weapons, curled into little balls and didn’t do anything. I didn’t see any point in killing them, so we’ve got them captured.”

    “Good work, lieutenant,” he said, feeling pompous but not knowing what else to say. There were some definite disadvantages to having the hots for a very capable subordinate officer. You were always a little at a loss for words, for which you compensated by acting middle-aged. Middle-aged and dull-witted.

    But this was no time to be thinking about Caewithe Miller’s ready smile and bright blue eyes — much less the small but very feminine body that lay hidden somewhere beneath her spacesuit. So Tully sternly told himself, and turned to address the others present.

    “Good work, Kelly and Greer. Mallu, my congratulations.”

    Could he possibly sound any more middle-aged and dull-witted? He didn’t think so.

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