THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 66
Jihan and Lliant returned to the Ekhat derelict, entering through the same hole through which the Anj had previously attacked. Her aureole was positively plastered to her head with dread. It was like crawling into the mouth of a monster, asking to be eaten. But no matter how bad the situation was, she told herself, you could only die once. Get on with it!
She pushed Lliant along ahead of her, never letting him elude her direct sight. The two of them floated through buckled corridors littered with grotesquely decompressed corpses. They were mostly Anj, but they did come across three carcasses of the great devils themselves. Spatters of white and purplish blood fouled their faceplates as they passed and could not be avoided. Even dead, with their limbs askew and their eyes ruptured, Ekhat were terrifying. If for no other reason, because they were so huge.
Without atmosphere, there was no sound, of course, but she suddenly detected vibration in one of the walls when she steadied herself at a corner. Something was happening, not too far ahead. She motioned Lliant in that direction. Then, by keeping one trembling hand on the gory bulkhead, she traced the vibrations’ source and headed that way. They finally emerged onto a platform which looked down upon some sort of huge open chamber for storing small ships.
Fighting raged below amidst the pieces of shattered vessels. A small cluster of white-suited Anj were firing at a larger number of enemies from behind some wreckage. The Ekhat’s little serviles were outnumbered and obviously getting the worst of it. She pulled herself forward to get a better look — then something coming from behind knocked her into the wall.
Her head impacted her helmet. Pain rocketed through her neck and shoulders, especially bad in her already wrenched arm. Gasping, Jihan twisted around and met the searing red gaze of a suited-up Ekhat, staring down at her from a short distance away. There was a second Ekhat, too, and they were accompanied by a crowd of seething Anj in their protective white coverings.
She was frozen. Those eyes were mad, burning with unreasoning hatred.
Lliant, who also had been shouldered aside, seemed frozen in place also.
But, for whatever reason — probably unknowable — the Ekhat ignored the two Lleix. The huge forms swept past them and the Ekhat dove off the platform toward the fighting raging below. The little mob of Anj followed. They ignored the two Lleix cowering against a wall also. Following their masters’ lead in every respect, apparently.
Once the last Anj plunged off the platform, Jihan took a gasping breath. She hadn’t inhaled at all, she realized, during the time she’d been in the presence of the Ekhat.
From the shaky sound of his voice, Lliant had been just as terrified as she was. But at least he hadn’t panicked and tried to run. “I think,” the Ekhatlore said, breathing hard, “we will be able to observe better from that part of the platform.” He pointed to their left, where there was an overhang that would give them some shelter.
He’d even kept his wits, for a wonder. She activated her jets and headed to the overhang. Once there, she looked down. Flashes of light illuminated the dimness but it was difficult to follow the action without the references of a solid up or down, or any sort of noise to draw one’s attention. There were only laser flashes in the swirling gloom, and fleeting glimpses of the combatants.
There was something else, too, but Jihan couldn’t determine its source or nature. A number of very bright flashes, yellowish instead of green. They were much brighter than the laser blasts, whose only illumination was caused by the fact that there was still some gas and dust in the chamber.
Then she spotted the figure of one of the creatures fighting the Ekhat and their Anj slaves. It was bipedal, wearing a dark-colored spacesuit and was quite small, whatever it was. Not as small as an Anj but definitely smaller than a Lleix, much less an Ekhat. She couldn’t see any of its features, because of the dim lighting.
As she watched, the creature brought up some sort of weapon and she saw that bright yellow flash coming from one end. A large number of flashes, she now saw, in very rapid succession.
Then the whole interior of the cavernous chamber was lit by some sort of flare. For the first time, Jihan could see clearly.
The sight paralyzed her again, for a moment. Down below, near the center of the chamber, the two Ekhat were in full fury. Their six great limbs extended, claws open, their hideous mouths agape — quite easy to see, with the transparent globes the Ekhat favored for helmets — and their red eyes glaring.
But the terror passed, almost at once, replaced by wonder. As she watched, the gigantic Ekhat forms began disintegrating.