The Span Of Empire – Snippet 22
Glimnitz shuddered as the loathsome pink creatures dragged it back to its fellows and shoved it inside the sterile room. His fellow Trīkē swarmed him, pressing their lengths to his in a futile attempt to find comfort. Alas, there was no comfort outside the sphere of the Great Ones. There was no joy if one could not serve until the moment of the next Note and then the next. No songs existed in this terrible place. They could look forward to nothing but death.
“What do they want with us?” Solvaya asked, an undersized female. She was faulty, having torn off a leg in the battle and now had trouble walking.
“They ask questions,” Glimnitz said as the rest crowded in for comfort. “Questions and questions about the great masters!”
She limped back and forth at the edges of the group, unable to draw nearer. “Did you answer?”
“As soon as they have what they want from us, we will be spaced, you can be sure of that,” Glimnitz said. “Silence is our best protection. Tell them nothing. Eventually the Great Ones will find this ship and destroy it themselves. Then we will all be at peace, knowing we have done our best.”
In the event, it took nearly three days for the fleet to achieve readiness to leave. Vercingetorix had by far the worst damage, and was accordingly the last vessel to be ready.
While the fleet waited on the battleship’s repairs, Tully spent most of his time with Lieutenant Bannerji and the Lleix Ramt in the interrogations of the Ekhat slaves.
Attempted interrogations, that is.
Down on the lower deck, the squirmy Trīkē were still not talking to anyone but each other. Ramt was making progress translating their vocalizations, but not nearly as much as she would have if they would speak with her too. They weren’t like real individuals, she thought, as she tracked comments and responses around the room. What one thought, they evidently all thought. They could embellish upon a statement, modify it, expand it, but they seemed utterly unable to contradict an idea once it had been expressed.
Was that an artifact of their slave status? Ramt edged closer to the one-way glass. Had the Ekhat bred the ability to even conceive of opposition out of these pathetic creatures? She made notations on her pad, thinking how to turn this to their advantage.
She keyed the intercom on. “Report on condition!” she barked in Ekhat.
The Trīkē hesitated, clumped in the center of the detention chamber. “Master?” one of them chirped, then they were all abasing themselves, falling to the floor, squirming over and under one another.
“Report!” she said again.
“This is a dreadful place,” one, larger than the rest, said. “Take us back to the divine Ekhat! Let us serve the true song again!”
“You shall go nowhere until you report!” Ramt said, trying to evoke the hatefulness of a true Ekhat.
“It is cold here,” the Trīkē said, “and oh so very bright! Our eyes burn and there is no work. We are desolate with nothing to do.”
They could adjust the temperature and lighting, Ramt thought. Work was another matter. “Your work,” she said, suddenly struck by a notion, “your current assignment, is to converse with our new slaves, the Lleix. Teach them how to speak properly and how to work for the Ekhat.”
The iridescent black bodies stilled. “Then we will hear the next note?”
“You will hear it as soon as I do,” Ramt said, then shut off the intercom. First, she would have conditions altered more to their liking, then she would present himself inside their detention chamber and see if he had at last found a way around their all too natural cautions.
Even Caitlin Kralik came over from the Lexington to observe the captives. She watched Lieutenant Bannerji and Ramt work with the Trīkē, as they’d learned the sinuous black aliens called themselves.
“They may actually be quite low on the intelligence scale for species,” Bannerji said. “They don’t seem to be able to conceive of an existence where they are not slaves.”
“Then, for now,” Caitlin said, “they should consider themselves our slaves. We can worry about liberating them later.”
Bannerji stared at her. “That’s–” He shook his head. “That’s–genius. It just might work.”
He nodded at the door. “Ramt and I will try that.”
The Lleix joined him as he slipped through door. Inside the detention chamber, the Trīkē rushed to the back wall and cowered in a sinuous pile of sleek, iridescent black bodies.
The wretched creatures were coming after them again! Trīkē 10988, also known as Solvaya, cowered against the wall. Why did they not decently kill their captives? Trīkē had no purpose outside the divine Ekhat. Their magnificent ship was gone. The great note being composed by their masters was left unsung, choked off into nothingness before it could be broadcast. There were no Ekhat here to slaughter them for failing to win the battle as was right and needful. So it was not even left to them to die well and please their masters in that way.
The two aliens who came into the room were different from one another in many respects but alike in their stiffness. They spoke the Divine Language. The masters, Solvaya remembered from the few times he had been granted a glimpse, had been quite stiff too.
“Slaves,” the smaller one said in a piping voice, “you will speak to us.”
They piled themselves against the wall, diving under and under one another, trying to conceal themselves from the alien wrongness that had invaded their space.
“You were the Ekhat’s slaves,” the other stiff creature said. “They are dead. Now, you are our slaves and you will speak to us!”
Solvaya was forced out by the bodies of her fellows. For a moment, there was nowhere to hide. She was painfully exposed.
The smaller alien stepped closer. It had coverings of some sort draped over it, a false hide, as though it was molting. Disgusting!
The larger one prowled near. “What are your duties?”
Solvaya could not think; she was so afraid.
“Report!” the stiff ones said. “Report!”
“We run the ship,” the Trīkē said. “We service the engines, adjust the controls, but mostly we wait for the next Divine Note.”
“Good,” the smaller one said. “You are our slaves now.”
“Where is our work?” Solvaya replied in a low tone. “Will you sing one of the great notes when victory is achieved?”
“Perhaps,” the smaller one said, “if you work hard.”
“Where is our work?” Trīkē 31766 said from behind. “What shall we do to please our new masters?”
“Where is our work?” the others babbled together. “Where is our work?”
“Your first work is to talk to us in your native tongue,” the smaller one said. “Then we will see.”
“Talk?” they echoed.
“Tell us of the Ekhat ship,” the creature said. “Tell us of your duties.”
So Trīkē 10988 sat on the floor, folded her stubby arms, and began to explain.
Dannet had ordered that all but a skeleton crew be transferred from Vercingetorix. If the wounded ship didn’t survive the framepoint jump, she wanted as many of the crew to survive as possible. So it was on the third day after the battle that, crew transfers completed, the fleet moved well away from the dead planet and the debris fields of the battles and, one ship at a time, activated their jump procedures and left the nameless system where long ago the Ekhat had raped a world of its life-forms, and where recently the universe had returned the favor.
Dead Ekhat floated in dead ships in space before the dead planet, almost like retributional offerings on an altar before a dead god. On the fourth planet the fragments of dead Ekhat were slowly mummifying from the cold and near-vacuum in the wreckage of their base.
The universe’s tutelage on the consequences of hubris was harsh.
A starship appeared in the depths of the sun. Slowly it clawed its way from the plasma, through the corona, out into empty space.
Third-Mordent almost cringed. The dissonance! What had occurred here? Descant-at-the-Fourth had built such strong harmony in this system, and now it was gone, replaced by dissonance that shrieked. What had happened?
Slowly the small Ekhat ship moved away from the sun, slave crew lashed by Third-Mordent’s tongue and not infrequently directed by blows. Bit by bit they gathered information: no active ships in the system, large debris fields where none existed before, ship fragments slowly spinning through space.
Third-Mordent almost broke when they found the wreckage of the World Harvester. To know that Descant-at-the-Fourth, one of her own collateral ancestors, was gone . . . it almost put her own song away.
Then they discovered the planet.
Ekhat do not pale, or blanch. But Third-Mordent’s tegument lost sheen; so much so that the next-highest Ekhat on the ship sang a query.
Third-Mordent’s response was slow in coming.
“We return. This account must be taken to our harmony masters.”
For once her song was quiet. “Someone has dared to break our harmony. There will be a price for this.”
Soon the Ekhat ship left the system.
Dead ships still floated in space. Wisps of rarefied atmosphere touched lightly on rubble on a dead planet.