The Span Of Empire – Snippet 12
Quarter-tone Ascending charged into the command module of her ship, followed closely by her mate Ninth-flat. Several of the attendant servients were trampled in their rush, their cries of pain and distress and death adding to the urgency of the building harmonies.
“What occurs?” she keened. “What is this discordance in the harmony?”
“Strangers,” one of the youngling Ekhats uttered a recitative from his position. “Unknown ships. Not Ekhat.”
Quarter-tone Ascending slapped the speaker away from his station with her foreclaw, leaving him lying broken on the deck. “See to him,” she snapped to Ninth-flat as she stepped between the servients operating the station. “Show me,” she said.
One of the operators fumbled the controls. Quarter-tone Ascending snapped his head off, and the nearest servient stepped into his place. “Closer,” she shrilled. “More detail.” The sense of impending dissonance increased.
Behind her Quarter-tone Ascending could hear the rasp of Ninth-flat’s forehand blade as he completed the broken male.
The display sharpened to reveal a large ship, ovoid in shape. Quarter-tone Ascending was so shocked she almost lost her grip on the flow of harmony. “Not Jao,” she intoned. “Not Lleix. Not Ekhat. Who? Who brings dissonance?”
“It matters not,” another Ekhat voice sang. Quarter-tone Ascending spun to face another station, only to behold the visage of Descant-at-the-Fourth staring at her from a communicator. “They have no place!” the senior Harmonist of the system continued. “They break harmony! They pollute! Unharvest!” Descant-at-the-Fourth’s voice was true and pure, so much so that Quarter-tone Ascending was both admiring and jealous. “Destroy!”
With that final atonal arietta, the communicator signal shut off.
Quarter-tone Ascending belled out the only conceivable command–“Attack!”–and led her daughter ships toward the intruder. The six ships of their squadron swarmed forward, almost racing to reach their target, all desiring to add the note of that destruction to the universal melody.
“Still withdrawing,” Flue Vaughan muttered into his boom microphone. “Terra-Captain Uldra is conning the Lexington. No further commands issued to other battleships. Formation is shaping into a shallow funnel, with Lexington at the point at rear. FC Dannet is watching instruments.”
How will we ever learn to work with Jao at higher command levels? This was the first time that Vaughan had seen either the Terra-Captain or the Fleet Commander in a true combat situation, and it bore home to him just how alien the Jao were. Their reliance on sensing “the flow” and acting in concert without verbalizations was just eerie to watch. Dannet had issued no further orders after the initial commands, but still the Jao captains of the other ships positioned them in the most advantageous locations for what was coming. Even with the viewer set to distance, Vaughan could see that.
“No further commands,” Vaughan spoke into his boom mic again. “Ekhat are pursuing Lexington. No detectable formation or stratagem.”
There was a low murmur of conversation in the command center among the various human members of the crew and between them and the Jao ranks. But all were keeping an eye on the Fleet Commander, who stood watching the view screen, position neutral, eyes black.
“Now,” Dannet said.
The view screen flashed to short range display, and the Ekhat ships showed up in more detail, seemingly hurtling through the photosphere to assail the Lexington.
“All gun decks, fire as you bear,” Terra-Captain Uldra ordered.
Kaln krinnu ava Krant stood on the A gun deck of Pool Buntyam as deck commander, her status as a senior tech notwithstanding. Her body was poised in the angles of readiness-to-wreak-revenge. It was not a polite posture to take by regular Jao cultural standards. Kaln didn’t care. She was of Krant kochan; small, struggling, with no ties or associations to more prosperous kochans, overlooked and looked down on by the more affluent. Looked down on, that is, until Krant associated with Terra taif. Politeness was not a consideration to Kaln; not here, not now. Humans sometimes called her kochan hillbillies, and once she understood the full meaning of the term Kaln had embraced it.
Her eyes glittered green with rage; an emotion shared to its full depth and intensity by all the Krant crew who stood to the guns with her. Ekhat of the Melody faction had destroyed three Krant ships some time back. Kaln had survived, along with Krant-Captain Mallu and some of the crew of the ship that had held together long enough to destroy the Melody ship. She hadn’t forgotten. Nor had her fellows.
Today was payback time. Today, after over two years of waiting, they faced Ekhat again. But there was no comparison between their old Krant ship and Pool Buntyam. Today they would hammer the Ekhat with their beautiful new ship. And it didn’t matter if these ships weren’t Melody faction. Today, all Ekhat were the same.
Kaln felt the flow, rode it, waiting, anticipating, until it felt as if green sparks should be shooting from her stiffened whiskers. Just as the flow crested, Krant-Captain Mallu gave the word through the com: “Shoot!”
Twelve 200 millimeter cannon fired as one.
Quarter-tone Ascending stood in the center of the command module. There was no time to descend to the dance chamber, no time to prepare a grand performance plan, no time to prepare her mind for the music to come. There was only time to unite with Ninth-flat and stand and improvise an aria of death and destruction, extinction and eradication, genocide and glory. Their voices twined around each other, soaring, leaping, finding new heights of murderous passion, flowing out over the communicator to overmaster and draw the daughter ships in to follow her lead in the dance.
The Trīkē servients added their piping chorus behind the booming voices of the two great Ekhat.
“Onward!” Quarter-tone Ascending sang as their ship entered the outer plasma layer of the sun. “Erase the strangers!”
Echoes of her motif came back through the communicator from the daughter ships.
“Damn, that’s cool” Flue Vaughan muttered as he watched the streams of 200 millimeter rounds flaring through the plasma, somewhat like tracer rounds used to do in the old movies. They were depleted uranium sabot rounds, and the fierce solar plasma sublimated a layer of molecules with each passing second, but their velocity was so great that they didn’t lose much before arriving at their targets.
The solar plasma really interfered with the viewer, but Vaughan could make out faint bulges in the visual texture. “Bow waves off the Ekhat ships,” he said into his mic as he pressed another pad, capturing a view for later study. “Need to talk to old sub crews. We’re operating in a fluid here. Maybe they would have some ideas.”
He watched as volley after volley after volley flew out, targeting the lead Ekhat ship.
The aria duet continued, echoes from the daughter ships fading as they entered the plasma. Quarter-tone Ascending and Ninth-flat, in synchrony, took a servient from each side of the command module, held it up, and began slashing limbs off with their forehand blades, slowly, in counter-rhythm to each other. The agonized squeals of the dying servients added a most wonderful descant to the aria.
Their ship shuddered. Quarter-tone Ascending shrieked in anger, pulling the aria in an unplanned for direction. Ninth-flat lost synchrony, and she lashed behind her with her own forehand blade, feeling it bite without looking.
The Trīkē servients were ululating in terror, working their controls at furious rates. The young Ekhat were beating the servients, flogging them to higher pitches of frantic labor and shrill terror.
The ship shuddered again, and several bolts of flame flew through the compartment. One passed behind Quarter-tone Ascending, and Ninth-flat fell silent.
Kaln stood watching her gun crews work the weapons, her posture nothing more than pure blunt satisfaction. With four Lexingtons in the fray, none of the Ekhat ships had a chance. And the fact that her ship, her Pool Buntyam, was one of them only made the emotion that much stronger.
Her crews went about their work smoothly, feeding the rounds and the liquid propellants into the chambers of their cannons with efficiency. If one or two of the crew members had body angles of foreseen-retribution, well, she would overlook that.
Kaln did not own a human watch. She didn’t think in terms of seconds. But the volleys crashed out from the guns in synchrony with the flow. And she could feel the completion approaching.
Caitlin watched in awe as, one by one, the torrents of metal that the Lexington and her sister ships threw at the Ekhat ships caused them to disappear from the view screen. She had been told more than once of the effect of a depleted uranium sabot crashing through the side wall. The fiery hell that would have been created in each ship before their shields failed and the solar plasma overwhelmed them didn’t bear thinking about.
One by one the blips faded from the view screen. It seemed to take hours, but after a glance at her watch, Caitlin knew it had only been minutes. Less than half an hour to send an entire Ekhat squadron to oblivion.