The Span Of Empire – Snippet 14
Descant-at-the-Fourth’s song fought against the dissonance that threatened to overwhelm the system as ship after ship emerged from the sun. She descended to the great dance chamber of her ship, followed by Second-Strong-Cadence and every other Ekhat on the ship not required to make the servients operate the vessel.
All the Trīkē servients not actually at controls were also summoned.
Gabe Tully’s jaw clenched as the repeater screen in his command deck on the Ban Chao finally gave him a clear view of what the Terra taif fleet faced.
Beside him Lieutenant Bannerji whistled. “Eight of them. Wow.”
“What’s the matter, Lieutenant?” Gabe asked with a grin. “Think Dannet can’t take them, after wiping out their sun patrol?”
“Oh, no, sir,” Bannerji replied earnestly. “It’s just, this will be one of the biggest Jao/Ekhat engagements for the last hundred years or so. And we’ve got a ring-side seat.”
“More like we’re sitting in the ring,” Gabe muttered. He pointed at the sidebars displayed on the view screen. “So what can you tell me about this fleet?”
Bannerji pointed his pad at the view screen, pulling the data off and matching it into the databanks he had stored. “Hmm, yes, that matches . . .”
“Vikram,” Gabe said with a bite. “Give.”
“Oh, yes, sir,” the lieutenant looked up with a flash of white teeth. “According to the Jao records, the ship types aren’t from the Melody faction, probably not Interdict, either. Most likely either Complete Harmony or True Harmony.” He ran his fingers over the screen of his pad. “I’d say Complete Harmony.”
“Okay, so they’re Complete Harmony. What does that tell me that’s useful in knowing where to point Ban Chao?”
Bannerji pointed his pad back at the view screen. Four of the Ekhat ships turned orange. “Those four are smaller than the others. Think of them as cruisers, maybe. Scout ships, small expeditions like the attack on Terra, that’s what they’re usually used for.”
Three more of the ships turned green. “These three are main battle craft, about the size of the Bond’s Harrier class ships. Any one of those would be a good target.”
The last Ekhat ship turned red. “But this one,” Bannerji’s Oxonian tones took on an air of excitement, “this one is the prize. It’s been at least two generations since a Jao has seen one of these. They call it a World Harvester, and they’ve only seen them used when the Complete Harmony goes in and literally harvests a planet, taking all life forms for use in their service in some way.”
“Uh-huh,” Gabe said, frowning. He looked around at his company commanders and command staff. “Well, gentlemen, I expect that’s going to be our target. Let’s take that thing away from them.”
Wolfish smiles lit up all around the room.
“Give us the tech readouts, Vikram,” Gabe ordered, and heads bent over pads as the data flowed.
Caitlin was hugging her knees again, watching as the view screen showed the Ekhat ships approaching closer. Or at least, it seemed like the Lexington was standing still and the Ekhat were rushing toward them, when the reality was that they were actually all in motion toward each other.
She looked up at Wrot again. “Is that normal?” she asked. “All that moving around? I thought they would just charge right at us again, like the ships in the sun.”
Wrot’s angles shifted to willingness-to-tutor, with a hint of amused added at the end. Caitlin resisted the temptation to call him a smartass.
“In some confrontations in the past, they have done this,” he said. “Some of the Bond strategy circle almost understand it as a ritual choreography. It has never seemed to help them much, but they still do it.” He shrugged. “The Ekhat are not sane.”
“Fleet Commander,” the head sensor officer called out, “the central ship is a World Harvester.”
All noise in the command deck stopped for just a moment. Then Dannet’s head twisted toward the communications officer. “Inform Ban Chao and Colonel Tully that that is their target.”
Caitlin pressed back in her seat as the normal noise resumed in the command deck. She wanted to protest, but knew she couldn’t. She had oudh over the mission, but not over the combat. For better or ill, that fell into Dannet’s hands, and it had already been proven that the Fleet Commander was superb at her job.
For Tully’s sake, Caitlin hoped that would continue to be so.
Such was Descant-at-the-Fourth’s control that when she began the new song, within moments Second-Strong-Cadence and the immature Ekhat had locked into it. Their individual urges were sublimated to her song. They followed her steps, they barked and staccatoed and glissandoed with amazing integration, even for Ekhat.
To a human, it would have sounded like the ultimate cacophony. To the Ekhat, it approached divinity–or it would have, if the Ekhat had had a concept of God. But even Descant-at-the-Fourth was impressed with the facility with which the others achieved her design.
Having established the ground, the foundation for her work, Descant-at-the-Fourth waved her manipulators. As the other Ekhat continued in the ground, she and Second-Strong-Cadence began a new theme; and with that Descant-at-the-Fourth’s genius was revealed.
A new harmony sprang into being, one that vibrated strongly against the dissonance brought by the invaders. Against the rock hard ground maintained by the others, she and her mate moved and sang, now mirror imaging each other, now offering thesis and antithesis, every step and every note strengthening the harmony.
The other ships echoed back the song, enriching the harmony and buttressing it against the dissonance.
As it crested, the first of the Ekhat ships flung themselves against the intruders.
The second phase of the battle seemed to last forever. And through it all, Flue Vaughan felt somewhat like a musician trying to play Bach with one hand and Rachmaninoff with the other, all the while singing the classic song “Stairway to Heaven.” His fingers flew from one pad to another, sampling data flows, pulling data and status snapshots into his files as he muttered notes into his mic. He glanced up at the view screen as often as he could, but mostly he was watching the readouts and bars of his workstation display.
The opening laser attacks had little impact. The Lexington-class ships had the strongest defensive screens yet known to the Jao, and they were carrying screens of solar plasma along with them. What little energy penetrated through those barely warmed spots on the hull metal. Flue knew that wouldn’t last, though. As the ships drew closer, and as the plasma cooled and attenuated, the Ekhat lasers would have more and more effect on even the Lexingtons, much less the smaller ships.
He kept one eye and one ear focused on the fleet commander. Dannet had issued no commands since the order to Ban Chao, but she and Terra-Captain Uldra were discussing something. He noticed Wrot heading in that direction, as well.
“More of that bloody flow,” he muttered.
Lim slowly refolded the edge of her robes with care. She was watching her fingers rather than the view screen repeater. Caitlin Kralik had authorized a feed of the command deck view screen signal to the Ekhat-lore elian quarters, ostensibly to aid Ramt in collecting data about the Ekhat. Ramt had extended the use of that privilege to the two members of Terra-lore elian, so she and Pyr were now seated in Ramt’s common room, watching the repeater even though he was on the Ban Chao.
Or rather, Pyr was watching it. Lim was avoiding the view. This was her first time to experience what the humans called combat–if she could be said to be experiencing anything at all seated on a Lleix-designed bench inside a human-designed room behind the armor and defensive shields of a Jao/human-designed battleship. Ignoring the slight vibrations felt through the decking, the view screen repeater could have been a human television in the Terra-lore quarters back in the Lleix refugee settlements in the mountains of Colorado.
But Lim knew that wasn’t the case. Intelligent beings were fighting and dying all around her, and it was disturbing to her that there was no sense of the struggle, no sense of the combat, no feeling that she was involved. That bothered the young Lleix, bothered her deeply.
Lim was slowly coming to the realization that her understanding of sensho, of the Lleix concept of right-living, was beginning to evolve. And she knew that some of the tall elders, such as the Starsifters just down the hall from where she sat, would be shocked that her sensho would vary from the way sensho had always been. And others would simply frown and whisper, “She is from the dochaya. What can be expected from such?”
At the moment, though, she was hoping very hard that Colonel Gabe Tully would survive this battle, this combat. She desired more than ever the teaching he had promised her.
Wrot settled into the angles of query-for-the-purpose-of-commencing-action, but said nothing. Dannet’s posture was a solid determination-to-prevail, but she said nothing. Terra-Captain Uldra ran a rapid kaleidoscope of surprised/uncertain/uncomfortable before he settled on neutral.
“The flow . . . is not,” Uldra said.
“Say rather, it is opposed,” Wrot replied, shifting to adamant-purpose. “We must continue as we’ve begun.”
The other two also shifted to adamant-purpose, and began issuing orders.