THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 56
Clever, clever Terra-Captain! Mallu thought, hunkering over the sensor board. It was well known that energy weapons were ineffective inside a star’s photosphere, but, until now, that disadvantage had applied to both sides battling in such an environment, Jao and Ekhat. With the addition of kinetic weapons to their arsenal, Dannet was using the plasma to give them a huge advantage.
The disabled Ekhat ship, however, had not plunged back into the star after all, he realized from the readings. It had established a very low orbit and no doubt they were racing to complete repairs and rejoin the battle.
Dannet couldn’t maintain the plasma ball indefinitely. Lexington would have to make maximum use of the advantage while it lasted.
Two Ekhat ships remained in play. Tully edged higher, gazing into the screen with an odd hunger. “Jesus!” he said.
Mallu flicked an ear in irritation. “Speak Jao or at least comprehensible English,” he said. Then, grudgingly: “Please.”
“That was just the invocation of a—sacred name,” Tully said. “A wish for –luck. The content is emotional, not indicative.”
Superstition, then. Mallu managed to keep his whiskers from bristling with indignation. As though that sort of primitive nonsense could be of any use in this situation! He punched up a real-time view on the station’s screen. The nearest Ekhat ship had taken continuous heavy fire from their kinetics and was now breaking apart, the angular gantries spinning off on trajectories of their own, the tetrahedron imploding. Gas vented, then the shields failed spectacularly and the metal components were melting into slag from the high temperatures. Scattered remnants spun lazily toward the star.
“One left!” Tully said. The peculiar tracings of yellow nap above his static eyes rose.
But Lexington’s plasma protection was dissipating quickly, Mallu saw by the readings. Hull temperature was plummeting.
“All laser decks, go to full power,” Dannet ordered. Her ears were pinned in unabashedly singular concentration. “Fire at will.”
Lexington shook and Tully sprawled on the deck at his feet. Dannet glanced aside at him, but said nothing. Despite the Terran’s attempt to conceal his presence, Mallu knew that she’d been aware of him all along and had just chosen for the moment to say nothing.
Klaxons went off. Emergency indicators flickered into life. “Taking damage on decks twenty-eight through thirty-three,” a human male said.
Now that the plasma sheathe was dispersing, they were again vulnerable to laser fire, but then so was the remaining Ekhat vessel, and Lexington was heavily armed with both kinds of tech. Commands raced through Mallu’s mind, maneuvers and tactics he would try if he were in charge.
As he was unlikely to be — ever again.
“Jesus!” Tully said again, his eyes trained on the main viewscreen where the ruby strobe of Ekhat laser weapons was clearly punishing Lexington’s shields.
Obviously, the name’s invocation was of no practical benefit, but, flashing back to his own ship’s crippling, Mallu was almost of a mind to try it himself.
“All decks, lock down!” Dannet ordered, buckling herself in. The rest of the command deck crew hastened to obey. Some of the humans had gone quite red in the face. Others were noticeably paler.
“Cut speed to one quarter,” Dannet said. “Come about ten degrees.”
Mallu levered Tully up from the deck, wincing at the pain in his ribs. “Over there!” He shoved the human toward another empty station.
“But –” Tully turned back to him.
“Fool!” Mallu buckled the safety harness around his own shoulders. “We are going to ram!”
Tully dove for the chair and fumbled at the straps. In the viewscreen, the Ekhat ship grew larger and larger until all that could be seen was a close-up view of the tetrahedron believed to carry the main Ekhat living quarters.
Careful, careful, thought Mallu as the blood thundered in his ears. Ramming in open space was extremely dangerous, given the speeds involved. They could not strike the other vessel solidly, or, despite the new ship’s massive construction, Lexington would take fatal damage as well.
Dannet consulted the readings. “Come about two degrees more, Lead-Pilot Duquette.”
For some reason, one of the humans was counting down the diminishing distance in Jao. Mallu did not know why. It was quite obvious when the Lexington would collide. Flow indicated that it would be —
The deck heaved and everything, including his body, was impelled savagely upwards and back. Unsecured writing implements, cups, coms, electronic tablets, and anything else not tied down flew across the huge cabin, pelting unwary crew. His teeth clicked so hard, he thought he might have broken one. The safety harness held, biting deep into his shoulders and chest, but the wave of pain from his healing ribs made his vision white-out.
When he could see again, the command deck was dark, save for a few blinking red lights. Pain flickered through his body like heat lightning. He had to breathe shallowly. Voices were calling, reporting, demanding, but faraway, almost as though they had nothing to do with here and now. Something had shorted out and he could smell the burnt metal reek of the wires.
He turned his head, surveying the damage. Terra-Captain Dannet was struggling with her harness. Mallu freed himself and went to help. The Terra-Captain did not acknowledge him, only lurched to her feet as he disengaged the harness, eyes blazing with green fire. “Damage Control, report!”
“Damage Control parties dispatched to Decks Fifteen, Seventeen, and Thirty-Two,” a hoarse human male said. “Weapons Spine F is experiencing some atmosphere loss, but hull integrity is still ninety-three percent.”
Across the command deck, lights flickered back on, though not all of them. Officers unbuckled their harness and hastened to check unresponsive crewmen. Mallu inspected Tully, who seemed dazed, but not visibly injured.
In the viewscreen, the Ekhat ship spun crazily, too fast for its station-keeping jets to stabilize. Mallu understood at once that Dannet’s maneuver had worked perfectly — given the skill of the human pilot. The Lexington had missed the main body of the Ekhat vessel entirely and collided with one of the outlying gantries. The gantry had been torn off, of course — but, more importantly, the enemy ship had been sent into an uncontrolled spin. Ekhat fire control was simply overwhelmed. There was no longer any way they could aim their lasers from such a rapidly rotating vessel. Their internal gravity controls might even be collapsing, which would produce massive injuries on the Ekhat and their slave crewmen.
The same spin, of course, would bring every part of the enemy vessel under the Lexington’s guns, if — no, once; Mallu could see that the pilot was already at work — the range was close enough.
Less than two minutes later, it was. The Lexington was positioned no more than three azets from the Ekhat ship. “All kinetic weapons decks, begin firing,” Dannet said, pacing back and forth before the screen.
Lexington vibrated as the big guns on the two remaining kinetic energy weapon spines started firing. More than two dozen 500mm cannons send a stream of depleted uranium sabot rounds into the spinning enemy vessel. It was like watching a piece of metal in a lathe being cut into ribbons. Pieces of the Ekhat vessel went flying in all directions, the pieces getting larger with each passing second. Then, suddenly, the whole ship just disintegrated.
Fifteenth-Note-Flat and First-Note-Ascending stalked about the Conductor’s Pod of their ship in a savage temper, having already slaughtered everything living within reach. The vessel was spinning out of control and the brainless Anj down in the Control Pit seemed unable to remedy the situation, no matter what the two think-mates threatened.
Who were these intruders? There was no record of any ship with such bloated dimensions and they fought like no other species ever encountered by the Melody. It was intolerable. They must be tracked back to their nest and exterminated.
The ship shook with repeated blows. The intruder was hammering them to pieces by lobbing chunks of simple matter, distressingly dense, all the while also employing more traditional energy weapons. Their own weapons were returning fire, but it was impossible to target with any accuracy while spinning at this rate.
An explosion rocked the ship as another one of the solid rounds impacted with some critical sector. The interior gravity flickered on/off/on, so that their feet drifted off the deck, then they were slammed down, only to lose contact again a heartpulse later. The end of the next flicker brought an increase in gees and Fifteenth suffered a broken lateral joint as they hit the floor, which made their mental synchronization difficult. First hastily broke her own joint so that they could still think in tandem.
Down in the Control Pit, the Anj were squealing, rising up off the floor, then being crushed by the erratic gees. The noisome stink of their vital fluids filled the air. Then the gravity cut out altogether and they were pinned against the hull by centrifugal force. Fifteenth lost synch with First and found his thoughts chasing themselves round and round like small terrified vermin. The note, he thought. Now they would never get to sing their perfect note. The composition in this quadrant would remain woefully incomplete.
Something cracked. Fifteenth glimpsed the black of raw space through the parting cabin walls, along with the colored gauzy red threads of the nebula, dim faraway stars, the sun of this system, then blackness again as they spun and spun. Atmosphere vented with a whoosh, and then there was nothing left to breathe.