THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 54
Then Tully called him over to his screen. “Dannet is trying to retain the plasma sheath as we emerge from the photosphere.”
Mallu had gotten accustomed enough to human speech to understand that the tone of Tully’s remark was one of admiration for Dannet’s cunning. For himself, Mallu thought he understood what the Terra-Captain was trying to accomplish. Laser weapons were ineffective against the Lexington as long as they were enveloped in the fiery plasma, but the kinetics could still be utilized. At the present moment, only five of the guns were operational on Spine C, but Kaln and the human female officer named Miller had them manned and firing.
“Gabe?” a faint human voice called from the other side of the jammed hatch.
“Caitlin!” Tully turned away from the screen, then shouted something back in the slippery native tongue.
The voice answered, still speaking in Terran. More precisely, the Terran language called English, which seemed to be the dominant one. Humans had a bewildering variety of tongues.
Tully moved over to the hatch, crouched to press his ear against it, and listened for a short while. Then he turned to Mallu. “That is Caitlin Kralik,” he said. “She has just come from the command deck. Dannet is ready to jettison this spine, if we don’t contain our damage. She says we have less than seventeen minutes left to bring integrity back up to ninety percent.”
By now, Mallu had learned to translate the rigid human time terms into meaningful concepts. Closely enough, he thought. He looked up and down the long narrow deck, gauging the progress of the jinau and Jao crewmen, working together to repair the damage. For the first time since he’d encountered them, Mallu felt some genuine liking for humans. As baffling and aggravating as they so often were, it was now obvious to him that they were also capable of subordinating their petty concerns and associating with others — Jao as well as their own kind — for the sake of the mission.
For the first time, also, he essayed one of those crude and imprecise human body gestures. A “shrug,” they called it. “If she must, then our deaths will make themselves of use by preserving Lexington. There is nothing worse than losing a ship.” He still felt the hollowness incurred by the loss of his own command. “I am almost certain that we will not be able to restore sufficient hull integrity in the time allowed.”
“That’s what I figured myself,” said Tully. “I think we’d need at least an hour, more likely two or three.”
He stood up abruptly. “To hell with that damn Jao stoicism,” he growled. “Our deaths will be of no fricking use to anyone on this highly misbegotten ship, especially ourselves. But our lives certainly will!” He turned his head, seeking something, then pressed a stubby ear to the metal, apparently listening. “We are damn well getting out of here!”
The human was so overwrought that he kept sprinkling his Jao conversation with incomprehensible Terran terms. Mallu moved closer, his whiskers limp with bafflement. Lexington’s design was unfamiliar, heavily influenced as it was by Terran esthetics. Perhaps he was missing an obvious alternative that could get them out in time. “What can we do from this side that we have not already tried?”
Tully looked at the two human crewmen who had been working at the hatch earlier. They had ceased that work some time back, and had spent the time since doing something incomprehensible.
One of the two crewmen nodded at him. “It’s ready, sir.”
Tully hammered on the metal hatch with his fist. “Caitlin!” he cried. “Get away from the hatch! You and everybody else out there! Do you hear me?”
Mallu heard the Caitlin female’s muffled voice responding with what he took for an affirmative. Puzzled, he wondered what Tully was planning.
Tully stepped back and motioned at Mallu to do the same. “Stand back!”
Still confused, Mallu did as instructed. A moment later, at a gesture from Tully, there was the sharp cracking sound of a contained explosion.
The hatch sagged open along the side where the hinges had been. Mallu could see now that the two crewmen had placed explosives charges of some kind.
The whole thing was obvious, in retrospect. Mallu hadn’t realized what they were doing earlier because…
It was so monstrous. Inconceivable, until he saw it done. They might have condemned the entire ship! With the hatch unable to be closed again, there would be no easy way to seal off the wound caused by the spine’s jettisoning.
At first, he was too enraged to speak coherently. Then he began shouting at Tully.
But Tully shouted back, and after a moment, the meaning of his words penetrated.
“– stupid Jao bastards, you’re worse than idiot kamikaze! Thankfully, this ship was designed by humans. You think we’re dumb enough to build a ship designed to break apart in a crisis — and not make provisions for the safety of the crew?”
He went back to utterances in which the words “Jao” and “stupid” and “bastards” intermingled freely. But did so while spending most of his time and energy waving crewmen forward to escape through the now-open hatch.
“– get those people out of the turrets, Lieutenant Miller! Kaln, you murderous maniac, quit firing! We’ve got to get them out of there!”
Mallu could see Kaln in the distance, obviously hesitating and reluctant to obey the order.
One of the two crewmen who’d done the work at the hatch — what humans called a “sergeant,” if Mallu was reading their equivalent of rank stripes properly — leaned over and spoke softly.
“The ship is designed to seal itself off from a jettisoned spine with a lot worse damage than a blown entry hatch, sir. This won’t make any difference at all to the integrity of the Lexington. All it does — maybe — is let us survive.”
And that too was obvious, now that Mallu thought about it. Humans were simply not Jao, no matter how bravely they might conduct themselves. They would take the time and spend the effort to establish safety provisions that Jao would ignore.
The first crewmen began emerging from the gun turrets. Most of the other crewmen in the spine were already lined up and beginning to pass through the hatch. The sergeant — his name was Andrew Allport, Mallu remembered — was now helping one of the more badly hurt of the crewmen through the hatch. The door was still not fully open, so passage through it was a bit difficult for someone impaired by wounds.
One by one, they squeezed through the blasted door, the Jao having a harder time because of the breadth of their shoulders. Mallu hoisted Jalta to his feet and pushed him through just behind Kaln, who was aiding, not one, but two humans who had suffered broken limbs. Tully was hanging back, evidently intending to be last. He even had a brief argument with the small female officer concerning the matter. Apparently, she’d planned herself to be the last one out of the spine.
Very brief. For all his fondness for mocking Jao habits, Tully had something of those Jao attitudes himself. As he passed through the hatch, Mallu could hear Tully behind him.
“– on your feet or on your ass, Miller. That’s your only choice, and either way you’re going through that hatch first. Now why don’t you do something useful instead of wasting my time and yours?”
Now out of the spine, Mallu turned and peered back through the hatch door. The red-furred lieutenant’s face seemed even paler than usual. Her jaws set, she nodded abruptly, and went through the hatch. Mallu helped her through. Tully followed closely behind.
A new alarm sounded, pitched excruciatingly high. Only the dead could have ignored it.
All up and down the deck, explosive bolts blew between the inner wall and the outer ship. Mallu recognized that sound. The long narrow weapons spine lurched as its supports were severed one by one.
“Let’s get out of here before we get caught by the shield plates,” Tully half-shouted. Looking, Mallu saw that some sort of protective plates were emerging from slots he’d never noticed and were closing rapidly across the hatch in the narrow space that separated the entrance to the spine from the main hull. From what he could see, such plates would cover the entire base of the spine. No wonder Tully hadn’t been worried that destroying the hatch would compromise the integrity of the hull. For all the speed with which they were closing, the shield plates were massive, much thicker than the hatch had been.
Mallu followed Tully through the rapidly dwindling space. Behind them, the shields locked into place with a metallic clang. Then there was a rasp and the last of the connecting bolts were severed. The alarm’s tone rose, even more strident. Mallu batted at his tortured ears.
“Gabe, are you all right?” A human female with yellow head fur — “hair,” the humans called it — was kneeling beside the major, peering at his head wound.
He answered in Terran, then the female looked at Mallu, her curves and angles gone to a splendid rendition of profound-gratitude. “You have accomplished much good work here today, Krant-Captain.”
How could a human move so elegantly? Mallu stared. Her posture was perfect, effortlessly double. He felt like an uneducated clod.
Medicians were evaluating injuries and taking the wounded away for treatment. A Jao medician stopped to check Mallu, but he waved him on. His ribs ached, nothing more, as far as he could tell, beyond a scrape he’d somehow picked up on his left leg. There were many who needed immediate attention far more than he did.
The ship shook as though they had taken a hit. He lurched to his feet and bent over Tully as a medician dabbed the cut on the Terran’s forehead with antiseptic. “I am going up to the command deck,” he said.
“Not without me!” Tully struggled to his feet, then swayed. Mallu caught his arm and then together they wove toward the nearest lift.