THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 51
“In position,” the Jao said. “All decks confirmed locked down.”
“Then reverse course and accelerate,” Dannet said.
Accelerate? Startled, Caitlin craned her head. The Ekhat ship was growing nearer, according to the viewscreen. Shouldn’t the image be shrinking if they were trying to avoid a collision? Surely Dannet wouldn’t —
A human officer was counting down the seconds to impact, though the words meant nothing to the Jao. They already knew when it would take place, feeling it in some way that a human never would experience.
She wanted to look away, but couldn’t. The Ekhat ship with its bizarre configuration, as though it were constructed from a child’s Tinker Toys, didn’t look that dangerous compared to the massive Lexington, but —
The Ekhat swept closer and closer.
There was a hideous crash that wrenched her neck and rattled her bones so that it seemed her brain was ricocheting off her skull. She was thrown against the harness with bruising force. The camera feed went black and it took several seconds for someone to switch to an alternate view.
The Ekhat ship was disintegrating in an almost leisurely manner, gantries separating from one another, crushed tetrahedron spinning, gas venting, small explosions here and there. Then the flotsam burned, winking out with a flash so bright, it hurt her eyes. They had lost their shields in that moment, Caitlin realized with a jolt, then wondered how stable their own were after the crash.
“Damage reports coming in,” a human male said from across the bridge, his voice hoarse. “So far, shields have retained ninety percent integrity.”
So far? Caitlin didn’t like the sound of that.
“Point of greatest impact?” Dannet asked, rising from her command chair, not a whisker out of place.
There was a moment of silence as the bridge crew recovered their composure enough to punch in queries on their screens. “Spine C,” someone reported.
Tully heard a klaxon wailing in his ears. He tasted the coppery bitterness of blood in his mouth.
Hands reached down, removed his harness, and hauled him to his feet as though he weighed nothing. Jao hands, he realized, trying to clear his head. His vision was fuzzy as though someone had just clouted him in the head.
“Y-Yaut?” But that made no sense, he thought, trying to get his bearings. He was on the Lexington, not back in Pascagoula.
“– must command your troops!” the Jao was saying. Tully finally got his eyes to focus. The Krant-Captain, Mallu, was peering into his face. The Jao’s eyes crawled with green. “This deck is venting atmosphere. If we lose hull integrity, the ship will be vulnerable to the star’s plasma. Lexington will be lost!”
“Damage control!” Tully husked, then looked about. Dazed soldiers, both human and Jao, were struggling out of their safety harnesses. At least one of the guns had something wrong with it, judging from the haste with which its crew was emerging. From the distance, Tully couldn’t determine the exact nature of the damage. A fire had probably started in the turret. Such a fire didn’t pose a threat to the whole area the way it would have if they’d been using old-style powder instead of liquid propellant. The moment the fire was detected, the propellant would have automatically been diverted from the area. But it could still kill any crewman trapped inside.
“Lock those vents down!” he called. “There must be some fractures!” He stumbled to help, pulling the less injured to their feet, shoving them toward emergency lockers that held the needed sealant. Mallu was doing the same, though he could see now that the big Jao was also hunched in pain. The collision had done his healing ribs no good.
Tully tried to make his dazed brain think. If Spine C lost hull integrity, Dannet would have to jettison it to save the ship. The fact that it was manned mostly by humans would make her decision easier, probably — it was obvious that Dannet had no liking for humans — but she’d do it just as quickly if the crew had been entirely her own people. The Jao did not select ship-captains for their sentimentality and tenderness.
“Weapons Spine C, report!” a voice was saying over the clamor of the alarm.
Tully grabbed Lieutenant Miller’s arm as she moved past him, headed for the emergency lockers. She had a cut above one eye and blood was trickling down her pale cheek. “Shut that klaxon off!” he said into her ear, having to shout.
“Weapons Spine C, report!” the voice repeated. Tully thought it might be Dannet, but it was hard to be sure with all the racket. Was the rest of the ship any better off? By whatever gods were out there, he hoped so.
He dropped into his seat, letting Mallu and the other gun captains supervise damage control for the moment. Baker Company had drilled repeatedly on safety procedures over the last few days, along with loading and firing the great guns. They would handle the situation, especially with Miller overseeing them. Bloody-faced or not, the young lieutenant was conducting herself in a calm and controlled manner.
Abruptly the klaxon shut off and he felt limp with relief. Now maybe he could string two thoughts together.
He turned his mike on. “Weapons Spine C, reporting,” he said. “We have –” He turned and surveyed the long narrow deck. “– fairly severe damage. Gun C-12 is out of commission, for sure, and the same is probably true of one or two others. There are no visible hull ruptures” — that was a stupidly unnecessary things to say, since if the hull was visibly breached inside the photosphere they’d all be crisped bacon by now — “but there are certainly microruptures. We are working to find and contain the leaks now.”
Before him, the screen seemed to shrink and swell. He put a hand to his forehead and found a painful lump and the warm stickiness of blood. Great, he had probably knocked out what little brains he possessed. Yaut would —
He sighed. Yaut would say to get over himself. He would say: Make yourself of use. Take care of your crew.
“Secure damage, then report,” a Jao voice, not Dannet, said. “We have dispatched additional crew to assist.”
Someone pounded on the hatch that provided entrance to the spine from the main body of the ship. From the sound, they were using a big wrench for the purpose. “Can you release from your side?” a faint voice called. “We can’t get it open.”
Oh, swell. They were trapped. Tully went to the hatch, trying to twist the handle with both hands. The handle turned well enough, but the hatch remained firmly shut. The impact of the collision had probably warped the hatch entrance. Not much, but enough to keep the door sealed.
He turned to find Kaln staring at him with a peculiar hunger. “Gun Six is functional,” she said, her good ear standing tall. “We may still fire at your discretion.”
Fire at what? Oh, gods, he realized the Ekhat were still out there. “That is… good,” Tully said, trying to cudgel his brain into making sense of the chaos around him. “But we have no such orders at the moment, Senior-Tech. Carry on with your inspection of the rest of the guns.”
He returned to his station. “Shall we acquire targets?” he asked the bridge.
“Negative,” the voice said. That was perhaps Otta krinnu ava Terra, Dannet’s Second up on the bridge. What humans would consider an executive officer. “Proximate targets are already destroyed. The remaining three are staying clear of the photosphere for now.”
Destroyed? “We — rammed them?” he said in a daze.
And lived to tell about it, at least for the moment. Tully found that a little astonishing, even though intellectually he knew that ship speeds inside a star’s photosphere were slow enough to make ramming a tactic that could be distinguished — barely, anyway — from outright suicide.
“I’ll be damned,” he said, forgetting that the line was open.
“I have no doubt that such an event is inevitable,” Otta said. “Complete your damage control activities, then report back.”
“Yes, Pleniary-Commander,” Tully said, his face heating. A Jao with a dry sense of humor was about as astonishing as surviving a ram inside a star.
Behind him, he could hear someone outside whacking the hatch with what sounded like a crowbar along with a chorus of steady cursing. That wasn’t likely to do any good, if Tully’s assessment of the cause of the problem was accurate. They needed to blow that hatch, not bang on it.
He turned to look for Caewithe Miller, but she was already there. She’d brought two able-bodied crewmen with her. One of them was carrying a portable drill.
“I think we’ll need to drill and set explosive charges, sir,” she said. “In order to get the hatch open, I mean.”
“Yes, I think you’re right. See to it, Lieutenant.” He didn’t bother to ask what she planned to use in the way of explosive material. Miller would know what she was doing. Tully still had a lot of injured crewmen he needed to get ready for evacuation in case the damage control teams couldn’t seal the hull leaks.
“Exiting the photosphere to go after the remaining Ekhat vessels,” Dannet’s voice said on the ship-wide channel. “All decks prepare.”