Chapter 20

Tully took the lift back up to the bridge, bracing himself against the wall as the deck indicator flashed, watching Mallu on the other side of the cab. The Krant-Captain was in obvious pain, standing bent over to ease his ribs. One of the legs of his maroon trousers were torn, the skin beneath abraded and seeping that odd orange shade of Jao blood. Tully wondered how the Jao had acquired the injury. In all likelihood, though, Mallu wouldn’t know himself. Things had been pretty chaotic and confused in the spine for a while.

Tully’s own head throbbed where it had collided with the bulkhead, but he was almighty grateful not to be left behind in the weapons spine as the jettisoned section drifted toward immolation in the blazing white-hot heart of that star.

The lift stopped abruptly. The door opened and they ventured into controlled chaos, Tully taking the lead out of respect. The scattered viewscreens displayed only a blaze of filtered light. Tully craned his head. The ship must still be enveloped with plasma. Was Dannet’s crafty plan working?

There was some sort of stink in the air. Subtle, but still noticeable. Overheated wiring, maybe. Low voices were arguing at the far end. Then heads turned as he and Mallu stepped onto the bridge. Terra-Captain Dannet looked up from a display she was examining. Her body posture was not one Tully was familiar with. Or didn’t think he was, anyway. It wasn’t always easy to tell, because the different great kochans all had their own variations on Jao body language. Like so many dialects, as it were.

“Major Tully and Krant-Captain Mallu,” she said, stating the obvious as Jao never did.

Tully waited, but the captain could seem to think of nothing else to say.

“My crew are being looked after,” he said, assuming a Yaut-like posture. Readiness-to-serve, he hoped, or perhaps respectful-attention. He never could get those two straight. “I thought I would report in person. We come to make ourselves of use.”

“The command deck is already fully staffed,” Dannet said, turning back to the display. Her ears twitched and came together. “But you may remain and observe, if you wish.”

Was that just a hint of approval in the line of her spine? Tully, not for the first time, wished he were more fluent in bodyspeak.

Lexington reeled suddenly like a boxer who had taken a punch. Tully almost fell into the lap of a startled Jao female, catching himself at the last second against the nearest console. Mallu did better, riding out the pitching motion, having apparently developed better “space legs” through long practice.

The ship took another hit, though not as massive. “All three enemy combatant ships firing,” a human woman said, eyes trained upon her display. “Minimal damage on our end. The plasma diffuses their lasers.”

If the damage was minimal, what had caused those tremendous jolts? And now that Tully thought about it, lasers weren’t really impact weapons to begin with. The answer came on the heels of the question. Dannet had ordered evasive action.

Tully winced, when he considered just how extreme that “evasive action” had to have been, to move an object as massive as the Lexington so quickly that even the internal gravity controls were overloaded. Dannet’s pilot was handling the huge craft as if it were some kind of old-style human fighter plane in a dogfight! That was Charles Duquette, who didn’t even have the excuse of being a Jao.

The bridge stilled but for the ever-present beeps and clicks as the instruments cycled. A Jao was calling out distances in hundreds of azets, a Jao standard of measurement. They were all waiting for… something. Tully wasn’t sure what.

“Desired proximity achieved,” the Jao officer finally said. Tully thought he recognized Sten krinnu ava Terra, the ship’s navigator. “All three enemy vessels are now inside our plasma sheath.”

Dannet took her own command seat, Tully and Mallu seemingly forgotten. “All kinetic weapons decks, maximum fire when you have a target!”

Tully edged behind a support pillar so that he wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. He also wanted to stay out of Dannet’s sight, as much as possible. Even though she’d given them permission to stay on the command deck, Tully had no desire to trigger a change of mind on her part. He and the rest of his company had nearly given their lives in this battle. He’d damn well earned the right to be here. So had Mallu.

Visual input had been pretty much useless as long as the Ekhat remained outside the plasma ball, but now that Lexington had closed with them, Tully could just make out dark, oddly articulated outlines in the swirling inferno, as well as the ruby blaze of their lasers, still targeting them.

Kinetic rounds were making Swiss cheese out of the nearest vessel, while the answering Ekhat lasers were severely degraded by the plasma. Lexington maneuvered to give the surviving kinetic weapons decks a better angle, and then Tully detected several small explosions at the base of the nearest tetrahedron. The strobe of their lasers faded and the ungainly vessel drifted away.

Was it dead? Tully looked around at the deck. Everyone was focused upon his or her task. Several stations were unoccupied, though. He turned and motioned to Mallu, gesturing that the Krant-Captain should take the nearest one.

Mallu flicked an ear, then slid into the indicated chair, pulling on headgear as though he belonged there. Tully hunkered beside him, using the Jao’s bulk to keep him out of Dannet’s sight.

“What is happening?” he asked Mallu in a low voice.

The Jao listened. “The closest Ekhat is drifting back into the photosphere,” he said. “If their shields hold, and we survive the battle with the remaining two, we will have to go in after them.”

“Great,” Tully muttered. He dabbed at his aching head with the back of one hand and then stared at the sticky blood. Whoever thought up all this insane sailing around inside suns ought to be shot. Oh, wait, he told himself, that had been the Ekhat. No wonder. They were bat-crazy to begin with.

All the same, he had a new respect for the Jao, stiff-necked imperialists that they were, for fighting the good fight all these years against the Ekhat’s murderous insanity. They looked positively like good old homeboys in comparison.


“The Ekhat are still battling the intruder,” Jihan said, hunched over her instruments.

“But it is so outnumbered!” Hadata leaned over Jihan’s shoulder. Lliant got to his feet and joined them.

Like the Lleix, Jihan thought. The universe seemed to produce more Ekhat than any other species. “Two of the Ekhat ships followed it into the sun, but did not return. They have either fled the system or been destroyed. Now the newcomer has resurfaced from the sun’s photosphere, sheathed in plasma, and closed with the remaining three Ekhat ships so that they are all inside the plasma ball.”

“Such ships are designed to withstand contact with plasma,” Hadata said. “It cannot defeat them that way.”

“Their weapons will burn it into slag!” Lliant said, his fingers gripping the back of Jihan’s much patched chair.

“Perhaps not.” Her aureole flared with excitement. The strategy in this strange battle was so different from anything she had come across in the historical records. The newcomer could not possibly be another Ekhat faction, and neither could it be their despised lackeys, the Jao. Everything, the design of the monstrously huge ship, the strange armament, the peculiar tactics, all pointed to some species never before encountered.

She detected an explosion, then one of the Ekhat ships drifted out of the plasma back toward the star, wobbling eccentrically, clearly not under power. “Only two left!” she said, her voice a hoarse excited whisper. Two out of five, when even one of the monstrous vessels was enough to destroy an entire planet. Were the long-lost guardian spirits looking after the Lleix, after all?

“That cannot be!” Lliant said, turning away.

She gazed across the cramped cabin at him. He was elegant and educated, his robes perfectly draped, his manners precise, but his mind was closed. “It is just possible that we do not know everything about the universe,” she said. Lliant stiffened, but resumed his station and did not turn around. “At one time, before the Ekhat rained destruction upon our many worlds, murdering our future, we knew more than we do now. One only has to walk the colony and view deserted house after house to comprehend how very much we have lost through the long years of our exile.”

“Jihan!” Hadata said, slumping in amazement at the Jaolore’s effrontery.

Exasperation flooded through Jihan. “What I said is true,” she said, “and pointless avoidance of the facts will not make them any less valid.” She stiffened her aureole, sitting up straight to make the most of her meager height. “And there is no reason to look so shocked. I have not broken sensho by saying any of this.” She gazed into Hadata’s lovely upswept black eyes. “I am an Eldest. No one else here can say that for themselves.”

“Eldest of a pack of dochaya fools!” Lliant said under his breath.

Hadata lowered her head and returned to her pilot’s seat. “Indeed,” she murmured, “not that such things will matter once the Ekhat dispatch this newcomer and turn their attention to Valeron.”

It might not come to that, Jihan thought with just a trace of hope. The outsider might triumph, giving them at least more time to evacuate Valeron, but she kept the outlandish notion to herself. Events would proceed, regardless of what she or any of the others thought. Then they would all see who was right.

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13 Responses to THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 55

  1. Mike says:

    Obviously the theme for the book is that it is better to be a freethinker than to be too tradition-bound.

  2. robert says:

    Anybody who thinks Mike is wrong, go read Black on Black and Mother of Demons.

  3. Daryl says:

    I wonder just what the Lliex can bring to the anti Ekhat side?

  4. BRK says:

    I think they will bring all their lore even though all relevant loremasters may be dead.

    It needs the JAO and humans to learn Lliex. They already have a feisty spokesperson in Jihan…

    The possibilities for tripartite association seem really immense.

  5. BRK says:

    I am wondering what the Ekhat are thinking of this battle.

    A macabre curiosity. have they started terminating themselves or the Anj. Is there a challenge to Third ?

    What are they thinking ?

  6. Grant says:

    I’m not anticipating the Liexx to bring much to the table as far as the battle with the Ekhat goes, at least not immediately. I see them more as the opportunity that was needed to get the humans and Jao more fully integrated.

    There probably is all kinds of useful information buried in their archives waiting to be dug up that a human might recognize the value of if they got their hands on it but if I went with my gut I’d say we don’t see anything really coming of that until/unless there’s a book 3. This feels more like a “Let’s make the Leixx safe from immediate extermination, get the humans and Jao working together properly in the process, and maybe redeem the Jao a bit” kind of storyline more than a “we’re going to find the holy grail key to defeating the Ekhat” thing. Frankly, I think combining Jao tech with human ingenuity was when that second part happened already. The Lexington is just the first product of that and it’s about to wrap up wiping out an Ekhat squadron all by itself on its first test flight. What will happen when the Terran arms industry really hits it’s stride should be something to see.

    This on the other hand feels like it’s more about hammering out the foundation for the character of the newly emerging empire.

  7. BRK says:

    comment 6 set me thinking….

    This book is crucible of empire. What happens in a crucible ?

    you mix two or three ingedients under a hot flame and add catalysts and presto you get an alloy that is more than the sum of its contituents.

    Extending the analogy to this book. Ekhat and the frameproints are the fire, Human and Jao are the constituents and may be the Lliex are the third component or possibly the catalyst ?

    while the three together be able to force association on the Ekhat ?

  8. BRK says:

    just a stray thought …

    Is there going to be a sequel to Mother of Demons ? Each character there deserves a series all on their own..

    Can we contribute to writing some of those stories ? can we do it here , so that the authors and the editors could evaluate and choose to include in later publications ? since these are ideas and samples, they do not violate copyright and gives the reader and lovers a chance to repay the authors in some meaning ful way for the boundless pleasures they have provided us over the years..

    Eric and Drak, think on this…

  9. Drak Bibliophile says:

    BRK, please don’t post any fan fiction here until Eric gives his permission. I’ve forwarded your question to him.

    Fan Fiction can cause problems for an author when it is on a site he may visit.

    Right now Eric is too busy to review such work.

    Also, below I’m posting a comment Eric made a while back concerning a sequel to _Mother Of Demons_. I’ve heard nothing that indicates the situation has changed.

    Start of Eric’s comment.

    Will there be a sequel to MOTHER OF DEMONS?

    From: Eric Flint

    The truth is that Jim’s main reservation about publishing a sequel to MOTHER OF DEMONS isn’t really money, although that’s certainly a factor. Mainly, though, he’s skeptical that a sequel would make a good book. The problem is this: Every story, if it’s a good one, ultimately revolves around some basic moral and/or emotional issue. (Usually both.) That’s the key to a story, not all the adventures and whoopla and romance and whatever else makes up the ingredients for it.

    The only thing left unresolved from MOTHER OF DEMONS is the looming war with the Utuku. Well, yeah, that would undoubtedly provide a lot of the raw material. But, jeez, folks, a war by itself is just a war. Thazzit. Good guys over here, bad guys over there. Oh, blah. Yes, I could do it, but I can’t say it excites me any, and it wouldn’t really excite readers either, once they read it.

    I still think I could do a successful sequel, mind you (probably by taking a completely new character and telling _her_ story), but I’ve spent years chewing on this problem. And until I think I’ve got it resolved properly — and can convince Jim of it — the book will remain unwritten.

    End Eric’s Comment

  10. BRK says:

    Dear Drak,

    Let me clarify. When I meant fan contribution, it is not that we start writing stuff out here.

    I meant a separate section or place on this website where book lovers can debate or raise questions among themselves. maybe come up with alternatives or ideas that can lead creative folks like Eric etc to take it up and create something new.

    Though this is not the place for it, I just wanted to comment on what Eric had to say. I would say that the war with the Utuku is only the canvas. The story you could build could explore, Nukkuren moulding the Nation, Guo’s emancipation from a kuopto Battle Mother to a Kuopto Mother of all. The challenges that face building a nation with all the disparate elements itself can become a force to be reckoned with.

    Sometimes the authors become too close to the story and miss the forest for the trees. Feedback in the form of reader perceptions captured in forums like these could provide breakthroughs. I would say that discussions on snippets can be taken to the next logical step.

    This was a request to see if something can be attempted on these lines in a way that maximizes possibilities and minimises problems.

  11. Drak Bibliophile says:

    BRK, if I were to start such a discussion, I’d start it in Eric’s conference “Mutter Of Demons” on Baen’s Bar (

    That’s how additional 1632 stories started. Mind you, 1632Tech (and the Grantville Gazette) started when Eric had more time to visit the Bar.

    I don’t have any special “in” with Eric so I don’t know what he’d think of your idea. That’s why starting the discussion in “Mutter Of Demons” is better than any discussion here.

    Good Luck

  12. robert says:

    Mutter…er…Mother of Demons does NOT need a sequel, nor does it lend itself to one. I think Eric was right. And I think Jim Bean was right, too. I would much rather see Eric doing 1632 sequels (instead of “other” people, David Weber excepted), and sequels to this book, and keep writing with Freer and Lackey until Manfred, Francesca, Erik and the rest of the good guys win. And the books with Ryk Spoor look good, too.

    @7 BRK, everything you wrote is right, except they will never achieve association with the Ekhat. Exterminate them, perhaps. But insane is insane. The Ekhat can’t even get along with each other on a personal level or on a group level. They cooperate only to exterminate.

  13. saladin says:

    @12 the same could be said about us humans and some of our societies
    beside calling some other race insane because their way of thinking is different is…insane
    the ekhat must ne stoped – because they are a danger to the rest of the universe and not because their internal procedures are insane to our way of thinking

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