Chapter 23

Jihan tested the line with her good arm and found it solid, then the creature — whatever it was — bowled into her and she floated away from the derelict again.

She twisted around. Lliant was headed toward the airlock and Jihan had no doubt that he was fully capable of sealing her and Hadata outside to save his own skin. “Go after him!” she called to the Starwarder.

Her attacker was too small to be an Ekhat, according to the images she had studied. Neither did it resemble a Jao. Its torso was long and sinuous with four stubby limbs a quarter of the length of her own, and it was shrouded in a white casing with a clear bubble on the end, not a proper environment suit with a helmet like the three Lleix wore. It would be about a third of her height, she thought, if they stood face to face, and had unblinking red eyes.

“What in the name of the Boh is it?” Hadata called as the beast ineffectively pummeled Jihan with all four limbs.

Terrified, Jihan kicked it away so that it sailed toward the end of the derelict. She was drifting backwards then and had to stabilize her position with the maneuvering jets.

When she could spare the attention again, Lliant had reentered the Starwarder ship and Hadata had propelled herself halfway back. Jihan feared the creature would right itself, as she had, and attack again, but it just skimmed on past the end of the derelict, limbs flailing. She watched, sick with fear, the rasp of her own overwrought breathing harsh in her ears.

Her attacker had no control devices, she realized, nor any safety line anchoring it to the ship. By thoughtlessly jumping her like that, it had just condemned itself to orbit the sun for a short time, then burn to cinders.

“Come on!” Hadata called. “There may be more of them!”

Shaking, Jihan used her jets to follow the other two back to their own ship. She saw Lliant reach the controls inside the airlock first. He appeared to be trying to trigger the seal without waiting for the other two, but Hadata got there in time to jerk him off and take over. Once Jihan made it inside the airlock, the Starwarder ran the cycle and then they were safe again, for the moment.

The artificial gravity inside the cabin felt wonderful, though the air was cold and stale. She no longer had the terrible sensation of endlessly falling and the walls blessedly protected her from the sight of the bloated sun, so dangerously near.

“What was that creature?” Hadata said, as she helped Jihan struggle one-armed out of her suit.

Lliant was already standing naked before a console, his shoulders hunched, his backbone knobby beneath his beautifully silver skin. He reached for his robes with trembling hands. “It was probably an Anj,” he said, “one of the client species of The Melody.”

With a jerk, he pulled the brocaded robes over his arms and shoulders, then fiddled with the draping, taking great care with the folds as though such niceties mattered out here, so very far from eyes that judged one’s worth by such things. “The beasts are considered little more than vermin by their Ekhat masters, entirely disposable. Ekhatlore has never been certain that they were more than half-sapient, trainable, but not independently intelligent.”

So it had given its life for masters who cared nothing for it just to perish in that gruesome fashion. Jihan shuddered.

“Now, what, Eldest?” Hadata asked, as Jihan kicked off the clumsy boots that were part of the environment suit.

She had been so focused upon avoiding their headlong plunge into the blazing heart of the sun, she hadn’t thought much beyond stabilizing the ship. Jihan half-fell into one of the empty chairs, legs shaking, her aureole barely able to flutter, and stared at the screen. Her wrenched arm ached and she cradled it across her chest.

“We should check the most probable vectors between here and Valeron,” she said finally. “Even though we cannot receive messages, at least part of our request for assistance may have transmitted. Perhaps one of the Starsifter or Starwarder ships is on its way to pick us up.”

Hadata went back to the pilot’s station, and then Jihan regarded Lliant, remembering how in his panic he had thrust her away. Any number of factors could have intervened, and then she could be falling into the sun along with the unfortunate Anj this very moment. Anger clouds the reason, she told herself. Sayr would have known what to say in this situation, how to impart wisdom without irrevocably shaming the miscreant.

But all she could think of was the endless depths and the roaring furnace to which the Ekhatlore had nearly doomed her. For his part, he hunched over his console, punching up stats, taking useless readings. She wanted to strike him, but that was not what an Eldest did when youngers behaved badly, and so she held onto that thought until her shaking subsided.

“We need food,” she said finally and flicked her fingers at Lliant. “Go through the supplies and see what is available.”

He rose without protest and went to the rear of the cabin.

Suddenly Hadata leapt out of her seat, staring at her viewscreen.

“Is someone coming?” Jihan asked. She struggled to her feet, wincing at her wrenched arm, then crossed the cabin to peer at the screen herself.

Hadata’s hands twitched at her robes. “Yes,” she said slowly, “but not one of ours.” The Starwarder’s eyes narrowed so that Jihan could barely see their gleaming blackness. “Three ships, all larger than any of our Starwarder or Starsifter designs, approaching on a vector that indicates they launched from that enormous newcomer.”

The aliens had dispatched their own ships? Jihan tried to make sense of that. “What do they want?” Not to rescue three desperate Lleix, she was certain of that. Even if they’d intercepted their call for assistance, they wouldn’t have been able to translate it.

Lliant returned with three dried rations packets in his hands. “They come to destroy what is left of the Ekhat vessel, of course,” he said bleakly. “The very same hulk to which we just anchored ourselves. With care, they will be able to take us all out with a single volley.”

He was most likely right, Jihan thought. What other reason could there be? “And, yet,” she said, “if they merely want to destroy the derelict, could they not safely target it from their primary vessel? Why send three smaller, less heavily armed ships into potential danger? After such a battle, they can be under no misapprehension that the Ekhat will not attack if they are able.”

“Perhaps they intend to parley with them,” Hadata said, “or take prisoners.”

“No one takes Ekhat prisoner,” Lliant said with a weary shrug. “When they are cornered, they terminate themselves. They cannot bear the taint of contact with what they consider to be lower species. They even terminate themselves on the rare occasions that they initiate communication.”

“We should stay in our ship and see what happens,” Hadata said. “We are quite small compared to the derelict. It is entirely possible that they will not even notice us, concealed as we are in its shadow.”

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13 Responses to THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 63

  1. Mike says:

    See? Tully is still on his way.

  2. Grant says:

    I’m just going to pointedly ignore the part of my earlier comment where I said I was inclined to believe this was a member of the boarding party and focus entirely on the part where I said this could be an Anj who suited up to check the hull….

    “Ha! Called It!”

  3. robert says:

    So I was wrong, but that’s fun too. On the other hand I was right about something, at least:
    ““No one takes Ekhat prisoner,” Lliant said with a weary shrug. “When they are cornered, they terminate themselves. They cannot bear the taint of contact with what they consider to be lower species. They even terminate themselves on the rare occasions that they initiate communication.””
    It wasn’t an Ekhat and the Ekhat are too crazy to deal with. Remember how the Melody they dealt with in the previous book self-terminated?

  4. BRK says:

    Just a correction. It was the Interdict that they talked to in the first book. And it was True Harmony they fought subsequently. (though this is not explicitly stated, it is just that the musings of the Ekhat revealed in the previous book sounded like true Harmony)

    To terminate oneself takes extraordinary guts, esp the gruesome way the Ekhat do it. Classic behavior like this has couple of human parallels. One is Hara-Kiri of shogunate Japan, the second is Sati in India. The modern equivalent are the suidide bombers. The only twist is they like to take all the spectators with them.

    The question is how were the first two practices stopped ? It is only through education. Because only education can change the value system of a culture.

    I know it is hard to try and educate the Ekhat, but what other choice do we have if we wish to avoid War for eons and live in peacful co existance.

    The key to self termination is honor and its converse shame. As said in the previous book, Association is founded on honor. Find the key to Ekhat Honor and get them to see honor in others. That is the key.

  5. Grant says:

    Oh for cripes sake… would you please stop doing that? The Ekhat ARE NOT HUMANS. Not one single little thing has been written in either book that said word one about their self termination being an “honor” issue. And they’ve been a space faring species encountering other sentient races for ***eons***, what exactly do you think the humans are going to “educate” them about that is suddenly going to completely reverse their entire racial behavior pattern?

    Please stop tryig to pretend that the Ekhat are just exactly like some foreign human culture and need to be treated as such by applying human psychological approaches. They aren’t anything like humans. Other human cultures share basic, evolved behavioral characeristics which will provide you with a fundamental area of commonality upon which to build to bridge differences and reach some degree of common ground. The Ekhat DO NOT. And just ignoring that and pretending that they’re funny looking humans with human logic and human motivations that can be dealt with like misguided humans will get you nowhere.

    Maybe… MAYBE… if you can hammer them so incredibly hard that the survivors are forced to the realization that it’s either compromise or extinction and you’ve killed off all the most unshakeably homicidal portions of their society (like ALL the Interdict for starters) and performed a kind of brute force act of accelerated natural selection towards the more restrained you might, POSSIBLY, be able to convince those survivors to at least stop trying to kill everyone else and just mind their own damn business in a quarantined area you designate for them… then work from there over the subsequent generations. But nobody is just walking onto a Melody ship right now, capturing an Ekhat that is currently a representative of what it knows to be the supreme race in all the galaxy lording it over the contaminating scum of the universe which they have been steadily clearing out for thousands of years, and convince it that the proper way to view the universe is to see everyone else as having a right to be in it too just because you kicked the crap out of a handful of isolated ships today… AND then have that have any kind of effect on any OTHER Ekhat even if that happened.

  6. dac says:

    have to agree with grant. Unless this book/series morphs into close encounters of the third kind, it’s going to end when one side is dead dead dead

  7. DougL says:

    The Ekhat behavior we’ve seen almost has to be a learned social behavior rather than instinctive. (Too self destructive to have evolutionary value or be able to develop the observed tech.)

    But this doesn’t mean that peaceful coexistence with any Ekhat group yet encountered is possible or will become possible, nor does it guarantee that the range of POSSIBLE Ekhat behavior patterns includes any we’d consider really acceptable. Ekhat are genocidal TOWARD EACH OTHER as well as toward other species. They don’t communicate outside their own groups in any meaningful way (any who do self terminate or are killed, this makes converting one and having him/her/it convert others impractical).

    There has been a reference to breeders as distinct from other Ekhat, implying that Ekhat may well be a social animal (social like ants, bees, wasps, and naked mole rats on Earth). A social animal is likely to have a MUCH MUCH more cohessive organization than anything in human history has even approached. This could well further complicate any attempt at changing or coexisting with Ekhat.

    All of this is not to say that there will or won’t be peaceful contact with Ekhat at some point. But it does mean that our authors may not write one, and Our Heroes are under no affirmative obligation to try too hard to find one.

  8. BRK says:

    now let me run a couple of things by you.

    If you notice, When Ekhat kill each other, it is one of three reasons. 1. The function mode ends and there fore the incumbent is terminated (an extreme form of “being of use”) 2. When there is a struggle for dominance and 3. When they get tainted

    Now is this genocide ? Seems more like ritualistic killing to me.

    I do see the merit of Grant’s comment and I have the following questions. Not that we have any real answers here, but I think we need to explore these a little.

    1. Is there any kind of ecosystem on the Ekhat biosphere ?
    2. What do they eat ?

    The reason I ask is that any species that evolves has to do so in tune with the environment and other species in its own food chain. Based on the food chain, there are some evolutionary instincts hard wired into each species.

    Going by their behavior, this species would be unfit to live in any biosphere. It will die out in a few generations (either by decimating themselves or destroying their entire food source (If other species). The fact that they are so many that they dominate one spiral arm of a galaxy, means that there is some moderating influence somewhere in their polity.

    They are sentient enough to have evolved the Jao in a controlled manner. Which implies a resoning mind. Whay do they go ahead and kill other species. In fact they do not kill species as much as they destroy entire biospheres. the question is Why ?

  9. BRK says:

    comin to the other points that Grant makes.

    The main idea is to capture the Ekhat and have them live long enough to see that an alternate way of life is feasible and indeed desirable.

    Now if you see the behaviour of the Ekhat, they seem to behaving like a school kid who is undergoing education but each time a teacher walks into room, kills the teacher or kills himself. So obviously no learning is taking place.

    The idea is to see if their psychology can look at peaceful coexistance with just a couple of Ekhat. If the experiment succeeds we look at how we need to deal with species as a whole.
    At the present moment, there is very little information on the Ekhat with either Jao or the Lliex. They have info on their mililary capabilities and records of their interactions with other species but not much more.

    You need a way to to either kill the Ekhat or exert a kind of control on them that makes them behave. This will come only if you study an Ekhat. See if Maslow’s pyramid has any relevance to the Ekhat.

    The key lesson in the first book was that the form of honor is not important, it is the presence of honor itself which forms the base on which association can be built. We call it honor, jao call it vithrik plus every human language has a word for honor.

    To me Ekhat killing themselves because they are tainted shows that they have the concept of shame. Which means that they have the concept of honor. The interdict asks for a meeting, meets and then terminates itself because it is tainted. Why ask for a meeting ? Why meet if you get tainted and why kill your self after meeting ? Whatever you may call it, it is honor that leads to these actions.

    So these traints are not restricted to humans alone. These are civilizational attributes and attributes of sentience. So when I talk of honor, it is not the human sense of honor. If an entity knows shame and will avoid it and know honor and will seek it, you have got yourself the stick and the carrot to educate. It as simple as that.

  10. Robert Woodman says:

    BRK — I just finished reading “The Course of Empire.” The snippets here for “The Crucible of Empire” motivated me to download the first book and read it. If you have a copy of Course of Empire, re-read Appendix A. In that Appendix, Flint and Wentworth go to great lengths to make it absolutely plain that the Ekhat are all beyond anything either humans or Jao would regard as logic, as this quote from the sub-heading “The Melody” makes clear:

    “The Ekhat notion of “divinity” is difficult for humans to grasp, and can sometimes be more clearly expressed in quasi-musical rather than religious terminology. Each branch of the Ekhat contributes to the slowly emerging “supreme work of art” which is the “destiny” of the Ekhat. No faction of the Ekhat seems to have anything close to the human notion of “God.” The closest parallel in human philosophy is probably Hegel’s notion of God-in-self-creation, except that the Ekhat see themselves, not some outside deity, as what Hegel would call the Subject.”

    As for the Interdict asking for a meeting, the sub-heading on the Interdict states that the Interdict set the Jao free from the Complete Harmony (the faction that uplifted the Jao) as a way to strike at Harmony. The Interdict also is believed to be the faction that precipitated the collapse of the Ekhat empire and the end of the Ekhat “Golden Age” some 2 million years earlier by destroying the framepoints and starting civil war throughout the empire. You can see this in this section from “The Melody”:

    “The era which preceded this golden age is unclear. Even the location of their original home planet is no longer known to the Ekhat. They spread slowly throughout the galactic arm by use of sub-light-speed vessels, and in the course of that expansion began to differentiate into a number of subspecies, some of which became distinct species, unable to crossbreed with other Ekhat lines.

    “The Ekhat today are a genus, not a species, and some human scholars even think it would be more accurate to characterize them as a family. They are widespread throughout the galactic arm, but are not very numerous on any particular planet. That is partly because they are a slow-breeding species, and partly because they are still recovering from the devastations of the Collapse.”

    If you read the whole appendix on the Ekhat, you come to the conclusion that the Ekhat are highly intelligent and, from a human and Jao POV, either insane or not sane. It is impossible to reason with a creature, no matter how intelligent, that does not reason within the same frame of reference that you do. Think of it this way: the Ekhat are truly dangerous (to themselves and to all non-Ekhat forms of life) and they are not sane as we define sanity. What we do with humans who meet those conditions is to lock them away in hospitals (in the USA, though, it is more likely it will be a prison) and feed them copious quantities of mind-altering dope more out of a desire to subdue them and incapacitate them than to “cure” them. When we cannot incarcerate and dope them, what choice is left but to kill them?

    As much as I appreciate your fervent desire to see the Ekhat captured and reasoned with until we understand them, I suspect that the most likely outcome is a death match of galactic proportions.

  11. BRK says:

    Robert – can you believe, I never read the Appendices ! It is after you pointed it out, that I went and read them. After I read them, I understood the vehemence of Grant in insisting that they are insane and not to be reasoned with. So let me say here and now that Grant’s points are granted !(pun intended).

    But real life does’nt come with commentators who fill in the background so convieniently. In fact if you see it terms of interaction with jao or humans, given the information within the bounds of the story proper, I think you can see that my approach is a valid way of trying to engage with them in as constructive a way as is feasible given their nature, temperaments and behaviour.

    But I am still puzzled, how come these guys suvived long enough to have a “golden age”. esp if they are supposed to be low a fertility genus. If they make themselves so obnoxious, how come enough of them survive to adulthood with other ekhat or non ekhat.

    At the risk of arousing Grant’s ire again, the folks in our world, who carry this divine origin credo as a people, are among the most besieged people in the world. It takes extraordinary measures to survive as a people or even as a nation. Paople familiar with world history and Theology can recognize who I am talking about. These people have the rest of the world resenting them, with periodic efforts to wipe them clean off the planet. They have managed to survive only because of the cohesiveness among themselves. Even then, they will be the first to tell you that it was a matter of touch and go for close to 2000 years.
    The ekhat would have had this problem with other species, but over above this problem you have mutual problems not just at the ideological level but even at the individual level.
    Just how did these guys survive for this long ?

    Grant will feel that I am trying to humanize the Ekhat again. I am trying to understand how the Ekhat survived so long by looking at analogies in our own history.

  12. robert says:

    @8 Under the heading “1. The function mode ends and therefore the incumbent is terminated (an extreme form of “being of use”)” in your argument, with which I agree, it ought to be noted that once mating occurs, one of the parties kills the other, whose use is, er, used up. In an intelligent species this is nuts, and, by the way, a possible reason for their population stagnation. Travel around the galaxy with your mate-to-be, killing off lower orders, then mate, once and only once, and then there is nobody left to mate with as you wander around looking for folks to wipe out.

    @11 You write:
    “I am trying to understand how the Ekhat survived so long by looking at analogies in our own history.”

    Can you determine why the British Empire fell after a two hundred years by looking at analogies in the Chinese Empire, which lasted for a lot longer and finally fell for completely different reasons? Best I can figure for the fall of the Ekhat is that one group/family/clan/nation of Ekhat liked one kind of tune and another liked a different kind of tune. So they fought a civil war over it.

  13. Ed says:

    Hence the term lonnie tunes :-)

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