THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 35
PART III: THE VOYAGE
The Lexington thrummed and hummed and even quivered from time to time, a persistent reminder to Caitlin that, no matter their ultimate mission, this was also a shakedown cruise. Something could very easily go wrong. Every time she ventured out of her cabin, crew were rushing about to regulate this better and adjust that, or check on those. Even on the third day into the mission, her awareness of their lack of experience added a frisson that kept her nerves unsettled.
She was also highly aware of the vast variety of life contained within the great ship, everyone intent upon his or her own task, all striving together to make the odd-ball gestalt work. She, of course, had no ship duties and Terra-Captain Dannet had made it clear through disapproving postures that such extraneous crew as herself were not welcome upon the command deck without a compelling reason. So Caitlin kept to her quarters, when she wasn’t tutoring Rob Wiley, and dug through the data from the misadventures of the Krant ships in the Sangrel Deeps nebula, trying to perceive what Ronz suspected.
The readings and statistics obviously concealed something important, which had sent the usually careful Jao scrambling in what was, for them, a headlong, almost reckless, return to the scene. Damn Ronz, she thought fretfully, going through the files on her personal computer for the umpteenth time. Why couldn’t he have just told her what — or who — he thought they might find there? He’d let Wrot in on the secret.
On the shelf above her desk, her husband smiled down at her from in front of a temple, an image she’d taken when they had traveled to Amritsar, India, representing Aille. It had been hot as blazes that afternoon and perspiration sheened his forehead. Then the scene shifted to their wedding day. They looked both ecstatic, though her arm was still in a cast, and overwhelmed. Missing him with a fierce ache that took her breath away, she switched off the digital display in order to concentrate.
Think! she told herself. All the clues were there. She just had to assemble them correctly. The engagement had involved two Ekhat vessels, two Krant ships, and the mysterious third party. Readings inside the nebula, reflected by the dust and gas, were misleading and fluctuated from second to second. It had been difficult to pinpoint the location of one’s own ship, never mind the enemy’s.
But, as Preceptor Ronz had indicated, impacts on the Ekhat ships had been recorded during the battle which could not have originated from either Krant vessel. She computed the trajectories over and over, but the results always came out the same.
That third ship out there in the haze had fired upon the Ekhat. The enemy of my enemy is my ally? She squinted at the replay. It was like standing outside in a storm at night, she thought, and watching the rain shear around something invisible. The shape was suggested as much by what wasn’t there, as by what was.
Who else would have participated in such a battle and then left without contacting the surviving Krant ship? Not another Jao vessel. No matter how estranged a kochan might be from mainstream Jao culture, they were too practical to leave a damaged vessel that might be repaired and returned to use.
A rival Ekhat faction wouldn’t have fled either. Even though the Harmony — which was itself divided into factions — the Melody, and the Interdict had fought viciously with one another for millennia over how best to achieve the Ekhat’s on-going extermination of all other sapient species, they would never abandon another Ekhat faction’s vessel to be destroyed by inferiors. Most likely, if it was no longer flight-worthy, the crazy bastards would want to blast it themselves even if it cost their lives.
So, it couldn’t have been the Jao or the Ekhat. Her fingers drummed on the room’s built-in desk, out of sync with the great ship’s droning engines. Then who was left? She’d had access to Aille’s database since being added to his service several years ago. As a result, she knew that other sapient species occurred throughout the galaxy — this arm of it, at any rate, which was all any Jao knew and only a smallish part of it at that. But if sapience was common enough, advanced technological ability was not. The devilish Ekhat made it their practice to stamp out such cultures when they were in their infancy, never giving them a chance to reach the next stage in their development.
The door chimed. She sighed. Understanding was so close! She could feel the answer hovering just out of reach, waiting for her to open her eyes and recognize it. Letting it go now meant she would have to start all over again, but faced with the monotony of ship-life, she had to welcome any diversion. She reached over to the command board and toggled the door open.
Gabe Tully stood out in the corridor in his dark-blue jinau uniform, hands clasped awkwardly behind him. Lean and tan from his recent weeks in the mountains with the Resistance, he shifted his weight from foot to foot like a teenaged kid picking up a blind date for a dance.
Behind him, crewmen rushed past, talking to one another. He glanced over his shoulder. Tully and Caitlin had never been close friends, even though they were both members of Aille’s service, but he’d come a long way since she’d first seen him as a closely monitored Resistance prisoner in Yaut’s rough charge. Intrigued, she waved. “Gabe, come in. I haven’t seen you since we lifted. How are things going?”
He flushed, then stepped just inside, looking like he might bolt. His eyes appraised the compactly arranged room. Spartan as her quarters were, she thought, they were still probably bigger than his. The Jao didn’t see any point on wasting resources on luxury — except of course for pools.
“What can I do for you?” she asked, when he didn’t speak.
“I — ” His gaze dropped to his boots. “Ed asked me to, you know –”
“Oh, I see.” She sighed, certain she could just hear the conversation back on Earth that had prompted this visit. Was she ever going to pin Ed’s ears back when she got home! “My gallant husband made you promise to look after me.”
“Yeah,” Tully said. His blond hair was combed, his uniform clean and pressed. He looked almost as presentable as if he had a fraghta to look after him like a high-ranking Jao. Knowing his indifference to traditional spit and polish, she thought his batman David Church must labor night and day. Poor man.
“So,” Tully said, “are you, like, okay?”
“I’m fine, Gabe.” She smiled and shook her head. “You don’t have to worry about me, no matter what Ed said. I managed for years before he came along, learned to tie my own shoes and everything!”
“I don’t mind,” Tully muttered, “though it always seemed to me that you did a pretty good job of taking care of yourself.”
The moment stretched out, silent and awkward. Not much opportunity for learning the social graces when you grew up in the mountain Resistance camps, she supposed.
“Maybe you can help me with something, though.” She gestured at the scene frozen on her computer screen. “I don’t have much to do while we’re in transit, beyond tutoring Rob Wiley in Jao bodyspeak when he has time. So, I’m trying to figure out what we’re going back to the nebula in such a hurry to see.”
“Something’s got their tails in the wringer for sure,” Tully said, dropping into Resistance camp vernacular. He edged closer to peer down at the image she’d frozen from the end of the battle when the Ekhat ship had been heavily damaged and about to implode. “I’ve been wondering about that, myself, not that Wrot or Dannet will tell a lowly grunt like me anything.”