THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 55
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.