When Mallu reported back to Tully, he found the human officer in the assault craft’s rather small command deck. The monstrous outline of the Ekhat derelict filled the screen now, backlit by the boiling inferno of the system’s sun. The pilot, a human female named Kristal Dalgetty, looked over her shoulder at them. “Strap in, sirs. We are about to fire maneuvering jets.”


As he strapped himself into his seat, Tully’s mind was on the recent conversation with Mallu, not the approaching Ekhat.

Association with Krant…

On the one hand, it was obviously a dirt-poor kochan. Dismissed by most Jao, if not exactly sneered at, and with very little in the way of resources.

Fine. They were a bunch of backwoods hillbillies. Who cared? Not Tully, for damn sure. He’d spent most of his life as a Resistance fighter in the mountains. If not quite a hillbilly himself, at least a first cousin. Now that he’d fought alongside them, the Krant were okay in his book.

Besides, Terra Taif was fighting for status and respectability, far more than it needed wealth and resources. The fact was, although few of the Jao kochan were astute enough to realize it, that with its enormous population — Terra was by far the most densely inhabited planet in the known galaxy — and its technical advancement, Terra Taif was already more resource-rich than all but the great kochan.

What it really needed was simply… Association itself. Terra Taif needed to develop the vast and rich network of connections and alliances and agreements and quid-pro-quos with other kochan that was the single most important fount of power and influence among the Jao. And if that started with bringing into its orbit an impoverished kochan on the fringes of Jao society, so be it.

Baby steps, and all that. As the assault craft neared the hideous-looking Ekhat wreck, Tully reviewed one hoary axiom after another.

The longest voyage starts with a single step. You do what you can.

There were a lot of them. Enough to keep his nerves steady, thankfully. That damn derelict really was uglier than sin. What was it about the Ekhat, anyway? The maniacs couldn’t seem to do or make anything that didn’t have a horrible appearance. If they made mashed potatoes, the mashed potatoes would look scary.


Jihan was anxious as she struggled into stiff protective clothing so that they could exit the vessel and attach the tethers. None of her experience as a Starsifter included actually working outside a ship, though, as a safety measure, she had been trained in the correct procedure. Hadata assisted her, but Lliant had turned his back, steadfastly not-seeing her, as though he had the right to oyas-to in this situation, which he most assuredly did not.

It did not matter, she told herself, easing the damaged arm into its sleeve. Nothing mattered except that they survive the next few breaths, and then the ones following. And, to do so, they had to clamp this ship to the derelict before they tumbled into the sun’s photosphere or all the bad manners in the universe would make no difference.

Hadata settled Jihan’s helmet onto her shoulders, then closed the seals. She heard a whoosh as the suit’s systems activated, then she was alone with the sound of her own breathing. It seemed quite thunderous, but that was probably a byproduct of her tightly-controlled fear.

The three of them walked clumsily then to the airlock, Lliant hanging back. She motioned him in before her, not trusting that he would actually leave the ship if she lost sight of him, even briefly. Once he was in the airlock, she stepped in and closed the door. The system cycled, and then they were face to face with the sun with its overwhelming, blazing presence and the looming Ekhat derelict. Despite the energy signatures she had detected from within, the wreck was holed, pitted, and scorched. It looked thoroughly dead from this vantage point.

They clipped their tethers to the Starwarder ship and then activated the suits’ tiny maneuvering jets to launch themselves across. It was terrible and wonderful, all at the same time. Though the situation was indeed dire, Jihan felt strangely free in that moment, and the sun, on the other side of the wreck, was gloriously huge, swirling and flowing, in constant motion, almost alive itself. The nebula’s gases prevented those on the planet’s surface from ever seeing the solar system’s star this clearly.

“It is so beautiful,” she murmured, then realized she was going to miss the derelict and corrected her angle with a burst from her jets.

“You are insane,” Lliant said, landing awkwardly feet-first on the wreck. “It is no wonder the Starsifters cast you out!”

Jihan made contact too, flexing her knees, then sprawled full-length across the alien hull, wringing a wave of pain from her injured arm. Hadata, wiser and more experienced, had halted just short of the wreck and now hovered, seeking the best spot to anchor her cable.

Each tether terminated in an explosive bolt. Of course, Jihan thought, if anything were still alive in there, sinking bolts into their hull might attract unwelcome attention. But they had no choice. It was either this or die in very short order. No matter how beautiful the sun was, she had no wish to dive into its heart.

Hadata activated her bolt and it burst through the plating. She tested it, then turned to Lliant. “Hurry up,” the Starwarder said.

He knelt to position his, then fumbled the release, lost hold of the tether, and floated away from the hull. He was terrified, Jihan thought, feeling almost sorry for him. The Ekhatlore had studied the great devils all his life, but had never expected to come this close to them.

She edged closer to assist him. With an angry oath, he pushed her away. She spun off the surface, but fortunately had enough presence of mind to keep hold of her tether. Even without gravity, spinning, so that her visual field was filled with the ship — the derelict — the ship — in rapid succession made her dizzy. After a moment, though, she regained stability with her maneuvering jets.

“Idiot!” Hadata was saying. “You could have killed her!”

“What does it matter? We are all dead anyway!” With a choked cry, Lliant cast away his tether and Hadata launched herself to retrieve it. Face averted, the Ekhatlore floated above the derelict, arms clenched across his chest.

“You certainly will be,” Jihan said, as the blood pounded through her veins, “if you try something like that again. I do not care how frightened you are!” Behind her lay the immense blackness of space laced with red and blue gasses from the nebula. Before her hung the sun and the damaged derelict. It was all overwhelming.

“Frightened?” Lliant twisted clumsily to face her, more than a body length above the pitted hull. Through his helmet, she could see how his aureole was flattened against his face. “The dead cannot be frightened.”

Hadata fired the second bolt into the derelict, then turned to Jihan. “Let me have yours,” she said.

“No, I can do it,” Jihan said and maneuvered with her jets to return to the wreck. She selected a third site for the tether, roughly equidistant from the two bolts already seated, and had just positioned hers against the hull when a suited creature thrust its head through one of the jagged holes.

Lliant shrieked and then jetted back toward the Starwarder vessel.

Hands shaking, Jihan fired the third bolt into the hull.

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12 Responses to THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 62

  1. robert says:

    A suited creature called Tully?

  2. Mike says:

    I think probably not. Tully seems to still be arriving.

  3. DougL says:

    I’m doing my best to ignore the astrophysics here. If you’re falling into the sun, then anything you coming alongside at negligable relative speed and that you can bolt yourself to this way is ALSO falling into the sun. Baring friction orbits are the same for anything in the same place and velocity.

    Yes, friction will make the smaller ship’s orbit decay faster (there is gas even in space), but if it’s decaying fast enough to be a serious problem on any timescale that they’d care about then the ship vaporizing almost instantly due to drag friction is a somewhat more serious problem.

    40 kps is a good scale term for near solar orbits, so two objects can be going on “nearly identical” courses (say a 1% difference), and still be moving at a relative speed of around a thousand miles per hour! I don’t think you’re going to teather anything much by hand at that speed, and the difference between “survivable” and “falling into the star” is almost sure to be MUCH MUCH larger than that.

    They COULD need to hide behind something to avoid burning up due to stellar radiation (bigger is better for that sort of thing, and the Ekhat wreck is much bigger). But the text here is making it harder and harder for me to pretend that’s what’s happening.

  4. robert says:

    @2 Mike, there is an implied discontinuity here, or so I believe. We didn’t read how the Lleix ship approached the derelict. They just got there however they got there. So at least some time has passed for them. We don’t need to read how the Lexington approached the derelict, either. They’re there. Who else could it be? The Ekhat would never bother with extra-vehicular gear. If it isn’t Tully then it is Mallu. And that would be BAD.

  5. robert says:

    @3 If you read Eric Flint, don’t expect really good science. Just really good character-based stories. It is like all the anti-aging comments going on across the way at A Mighty Fortress. Authors make up stuff and write stories. The stuff might be complete violations of physics as we know it, but so what as long as the story is good.

  6. robert says:

    Oh, yeah. What about fantasy?

  7. Grant says:

    @4: How do you know it’s either Tully or Mallu? There’s an entire company of soldiers boarding this ship, and I doubt any of them would think much of either of those two people being the first ones to stick their heads through a hole in the hull to see what’s on the other side.

    And I haven’t seen anything to eliminate the possibility that it’s a member of the Ekhat ship’s crew. Maybe an Anj survived somewhere further into the interior and suited up then came out to survey the damage. We really don’t know. I have no idea why you think the Ekhat or their crew would never bother with extra vehicular gear, that makes no sense. They never need to, say, inspect the exterior of their ships while they’re in space? Really? Why not?

    (Although I am inclined to think it’s a member of the boarding party and not a wandering survivor of the original crew myself, nothing that has been written so far that rules the latter possibility out)

  8. robert says:

    @7 Gut certainty, that’s what. And it better be Tully or the Lleix will expire from fear.

  9. Grant says:

    Tully may make sense from a dramatic storytelling point of view… “let’s have the central character on the mission on one side be the one to be the first see the other side”… but he makes no sense from a realism point of view.

    If all of Baker company just stood by and let their commanding officer poke his head out a hole in the hull to see what was firing bolts through it from the other side before anyone else in the unit took a look to make sure his head wasn’t going to be blown off as soon as he did it I’m going to be a little put off here. That is NOT the kind of thing the person in command of the expedition should be running around doing.

  10. Mike says:

    Jihan is not going to expire from fear of anything. (She does seem to be rather an exception, however.)

  11. Daryl says:

    It is an excellent story with credible characters and well thought out alien values and paradigms, however the science and appreciation of scale seem to be of a par with 1940s SF (Lensman etc). Interstellar warships battle across a solar system, come close enough to ram, and have low enough comparative speeds to make that a viable tactic on several occasions? Sounds more like the Trojan war actually. That said I’ll still enjoy reading it, just switch off my scientific cynicism.

  12. saul says:

    On the matching velocities issue. The EK ship might still have some thrust, so it might not truly be in orbit. ie its still falling, but will eventually reach orbit if the engine does not give out Maybe the L ship had enough thrust to match velocities, but not enough to escape, ie they ran out of fuel or some relays would burn out.

    Or, maybe the EK is in an extremely parabolic orbit. One that would destroy the L scout….if it was not protected by the EK shields/bulk of the EK

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