THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 49
The Ekhatlore did not greet her when she came on board, only looked away and feigned preoccupation with buckling his harness, despite the fact that Jihan was an Eldest, technically outranking him and due at least minimum courtesies. Everyone knows of my untoward behavior, Jihan thought, gazing at his lowered head, then resolved to put the shameful past behind her. It was not what she had done before — and she had been right that day, however much she had flaunted protocol — it was what she would do from now on that mattered.
She was apparently the last to board. Hadata ran through the preflight checks, and then, without warning, the little ship lifted, the ascent much rougher than any launch Jihan had experienced with the Starsifters. She was thrown against the restraining harness repeatedly until her chest ached and she had to gasp for breath. The noise was overwhelming, louder than a hundred storm winds screaming down from the mountains. She closed her eyes and endured until the engines’ roar eased, then fought nausea until the artificial gravity clicked on. At that point, she was finally able to turn her attention to the data station as the ship assumed orbit.
Via a real-time view, Valeron swam far below, a green and gray ball obscured by clouds. From this vantage, she thought, the colony did not seem so exposed. After all, it occupied just one small location, tucked at the foot of towering mountains. That was the only such spot her kind occupied on the entire world. Might not the Ekhat overlook them?
But their ancient enemies had not missed the Lleix the last time the Ekhat had broached the system, when the most recent battle had taken place. It must be obvious that they had gone to ground here. The devils would search until they located her people. Or, more likely, they would simply render all of Valeron uninhabitable with a massive plasma bombardment. The records were full of such loathsome tactics. Apparently the Ekhat did not value planets capable of sustaining life, precious and rare though they were. The monsters wished only to be rid of the “taint” of lower life-forms so that they could rule alone in their increasingly pure and perfect universe.
Hadata crossed the tiny control deck to alter the settings on one of Jihan’s monitors. “There,” she said, pointing as the new readings came up. “Do you see?”
Five hideous shapes appeared, characteristic of the Ekhat disdain for beauty in form. No one would ever mistake one of their awkward looking ships for anything else.
Lliant abandoned his station and peered over their shoulders. “Blast us all,” he said softly. His black eyes glittered with anger. “It really is them.”
Jihan realized she also had been hoping the Starwarders were wrong, or the Ekhat had already gone, but they were here. Last-of-Days might well be in progress.
She punched in a vector assessment on the closest ship as she had been trained to do when retrieving debris for the Starsifters. The numbers came back, chilling. The Ekhat were on a course heading directly for Valeron. She turned to Hadata who was monitoring a station on the other side. “They are coming.”
Hadata reached over and checked the readings for herself. “Eldest-of-Us-All!” Her eyes widened. “They have held their position steady out there until now. Is it just the one or all of them?”
Jihan ran more numbers. Each time, the results were the same. “All five ships approach,” she said, though her throat had trouble producing the words. Lliant sank back into his seat with a muffled curse. Jihan looked at the four of them, the three Starwarders and the Ekhatlore. “What shall we do?”
“What little we can,” Hadata said, and went to transmit their findings back to the Starwarders’ elian-house.
Jihan watched the readings with a terrible fascination. According to numerous historical accounts, the monsters were obsessed with rhythmic noise, which they called “music.” Were they singing one of their dreadful songs even now as they approached, intent on destroying what was left of the Lleix? No wonder her kind considered patterned noise of any kind an abomination when it inspired such genocidal mania.
She continued to monitor their dreadful progress until, across the cabin, Lliant pushed back from his console. “Another ship!”
Jihan’s blood dried to powder in her veins. As if five of the hulking monsters were not enough to destroy every house and individual on the planet! “I still have readings on only five,” she said, her fingers flying over the uncooperative controls as she widened search parameters. “Where do you see it?”
“Quadrant zero in the photosphere of the sun,” Lliant said. “It is emerging through the system’s point locus.”
Hadata glanced back at them, aureole limp with disbelief. “Another Ekhat vessel?”
“Probably,” Lliant said, his shoulders hunched as if against an expected blow. “It is too soon to tell.”
Who else could it be, though, Jihan asked herself, except the Jao? Who were no better than Ekhat.
The emerging ship shed streamers of fiery plasma and for a moment a roundness was visible, then was obscured again by the fierce bright whiteness. Jihan blinked. “That was not an Ekhat ship,” she said, evaluating the stats as they came back to her. “The shape was wrong and it is positively huge.”
“You are being misled by the enveloping plasma ball,” Lliant said, his eyes intent upon his own screens. “It always distorts initial readings when the Ekhat jump into a system.”
Lliant was an Ekhatlore with years of study completed since being accepted by his highly regarded elian. All reason dictated that an experienced expert must understand the situation better than Jihan, yet she knew what she had seen and it had been nothing like the long spindles, angular gantries, and inverted tetrahedrons of an Ekhat ship.
The white ball of solar fire separated fully from the photosphere and shed additional plasma. The dark shape was momentarily visible against the brilliance of the sun again. It was not angular and deceptively fragile, crisscrossed with girders, but almost round and solid with long protrusions. It is not the Ekhat, she told herself, but refrained from speaking the thought aloud. Ekhatlore held sensho in this situation. She would not shame herself by claiming to know more than Lliant did.
Plasma closed around the vessel again so that it was occluded. Lliant returned to his own data station and studied the figures coming in. His aureole stiffened. “It is very large,” he murmured, “massing far more than any Ekhat ship ever detected according to the Ekhatlore archives.”
But it wasn’t the Jao either, she thought. She knew the sleek lines of their ships too from her research since forming Jaolore, and there were no records of any of this size. “Someone else participated in the last battle,” she said hesitantly. “I thought from the readings it was the Jao, but whoever it was, they fired upon the Ekhat ship, not us.”
Hadata and Lliant, along with the two Starwarder crew members on the other side of the cabin, stared at her. “Perhaps this ship belongs to a species entirely unknown to us,” she said. “The Ekhat must have many enemies. This could be one of them.”
“No,” Lliant said. “The Ekhat will not tolerate any resistance. They destroy everyone they come in contact with. All their enemies are dead.”
Plasma exploded off the newcomer and that incredible shape was visible again. And the ship was already maneuvering, coming about, readying itself for — what? Excitement mingled with dread thrummed through her.
She checked the vectors of the Ekhat ships again. “The Ekhat are turning back,” she said.
“They are going to engage the new vessel,” Hadata said.
“Then they must not be Ekhat,” Jihan said. “They are someone else, highly advanced, by the size of that ship, another intelligent species.”
“They could simply be another Ekhat faction,” cautioned Hadata. “Although I think that unlikely, given the radically different ship design.”
“Even if you are right and they fight the Ekhat,” Lliant said sourly, “that does not mean they will win. And if they do survive, that does not mean they will befriend the Lleix.”
Remember the Jao and what they did, Jihan told herself. Whoever these new creatures were, they might battle the Ekhat simply to have the pleasure of exterminating the Lleix themselves. Just because they were not the Ekhat did not necessarily mean they would be friendly.
The last of the white-hot plasma streamed from the huge ship and Jihan focused her instruments on those strange flat projections all around its hull.
“Bizarre design,” Lliant muttered as his fingers flew over his station’s controls. “Is that part of its propulsion configuration?”
Then a series of energy signatures flared along the protrusions. Jihan ran a hasty diagnostic. “No,” she said. “I think they might be weapons platforms.”
“Surely not,” Hadata said. The Starwarder abandoned her seat again to peer at Jihan’s screens. Her aureole wilted. “There are far too many.”
Brightness blazed. One of the Ekhat ships suddenly changed vectors as it took some kind of hit.
The battle was engaged.