The Span Of Empire – Snippet 29
“So, what is it you want me to see that I had to come to Ban Chao rather than you com me or come to the Lexington?” Caitlin asked.
Tully pointed to Bannerji, who flipped a switch on the wall and barked something in what could only be Ekhat. Caitlin hadn’t been exposed to much of the language, but it was unmistakable. She did have to suppress a chuckle at the effect Bannerji’s British accent had on the alien tongue.
The effect on the slaves was extreme. The pile of black bodies in the corner flew apart as if a grenade had been pitched into it. They rolled and scrambled and scurried and scrabbled until they were standing in the line that Tully had shown her in the com pad call.
Before Caitlin could say anything, Bannerji spoke, and the line shifted to a circle. Again he spoke, and the circle morphed to a line again, only this time on a slant. One final command, and the slaves returned to the original straight line.
Caitlin’s mouth quirked. Her first reaction was to make a quip about producing an alien drill team. But then what she had seen sank in. “You’re able to communicate with them, to get them to follow instructions.”
“To a limited extent, yes,” Bannerji said. He waved a hand at the window. “They are like so many Labrador retrievers–more intelligent than we first thought, and eager to please.”
Caitlin laughed. “I thought they looked like a bunch of puppies huddled there in the corner before you said anything.”
“They are very gregarious,” Ramt said, stepping forward to join the conversation. “More so than any Terran species, even dolphins or whales.”
“Are they as much fun to work with as Labradors?”
“Yes and no.” Bannerji chuckled. “They are much stronger, and if they run into you they can knock you flying. And given their, ah, conditioning at the hands of the Ekhat, avoiding injury in themselves or others is not a high priority. But once we got them to calm down, then yeah, they’re fun.”
“We must continue to be careful,” Ramt cautioned in her even tones. “They are not dogs. They are not tame animals. And for all that they are sentient beings, they are also hideously ‘programmed’, to use a human word, to consider themselves as nothing in relation to the Ekhat. At the right–or wrong–word, they will kill themselves; or they are just as likely to attempt to kill whichever one of us is with them.”
Caitlin took a deep breath, then released it. “You’re saying they really are slaves, not just prisoners or drafted labor.”
“Bred and born to it,” Bannerji said soberly. “So much so that I wonder if it will ever be possible to emancipate them without tinkering with their genetic code.”
Anger began to rise within Caitlin. The Ekhat could never be forgiven for this. “Okay. No quick fix here, obviously. But this can’t be why you asked me to come over. What do you want?”
Ramt and Bannerji looked to where Tully leaned back against a wall with Liang and Luff, arms folded.
“I think we need to keep them with the fleet.” Tully straightened and clasped his hands behind his back.
“This is the first time we’ve managed to get anyone from an Ekhat ship to talk to us, even a little,” he said. “Ramt and Vikram here are getting more and more out of them every day. Little bits, granted, but get enough of them and put them together, and who knows what we might find? I want to let them continue to work with the slaves.”
Caitlin shrugged. “Makes sense to me. So what’s the problem?” She was beginning to see that there must be some kind of issue with Tully’s plan.
“The problem is that Gram of the Ekhatlore elian wants them left here at Ares base for him and some of his fellow Ekhatlore to study.”
“Yeah. Number one, I don’t think they’ll do any better than these two at working with the slaves.” Tully jerked a thumb at where Ramt and Bannerji stood together. “Number two, we won’t get any information they might develop in anything like a useful time frame; and last but definitely not least, there’s no guarantee they will be able to keep them alive.”
Caitlin understood Tully’s points, and the last one in particular was important to her. None of the captives taken from the Ekhat ships during the Valeron battle had lived long. The sole Ekhat they had captured by lasering off its legs had gone into what seemed like a catatonic state not long after being taken aboard the Lexington, and had died before it got to Earth. The few slaves that had survived the battle hadn’t lasted much longer. They all seemed to just lose the spark of life and fade away, one by one. So the fact that Ramt and Bannerji had managed to not only keep these slaves alive, but get them to actually start interacting with humans and Lleix made them the experts, as far as she was concerned.
“Let me guess–Gram is senior to Ramt in the Ekhatlore elian.”
Ramt folded her hands together. “He is. And I have not the stature within the elian to stand against his orders.”
“Hmmph. Not a problem,” Caitlin said. “I have oudh over this whole effort. It’s my decision that it is necessary for the slaves to remain with the fleet so that we can derive immediate benefit from any intelligence gained from them.”
“But,” Caitlin said, raising a hand, “can we divide the group? Leave some here and take some with us?”
Both Bannerji and Ramt shook their heads. “No,” the human said. “We think one of the reasons they’ve survived is because we have enough of them together to reach a critical threshold to keep a colony of them alive. If we reduce that, even by just one or two, we may drop below that threshold, and then we’d lose all of them.”
Caitlin nodded. “Makes sense to me. So,” she turned to Tully, “that’s my directive, Gabe. We keep all of them.”
“Right.” Tully’s grin flashed again for a moment, then he sobered. “But there is one other thing . . .”
Caitlin sighed. “Spit it out, Gabe.”
He spread his hands at waist level. “I think they need to be on a different ship. If Ban Chao is going to be leading the way with these pathfinding jumps, you run a greater risk of losing them.”
Caitlin’s stomach lurched at the thought of losing the ship and everyone aboard, including Tully. But that discussion had already happened, and she couldn’t go there now. It took a moment, but she moved beyond that thought and said, “Okay, point. We’ll move them to Lexington. And these two as well.” She pointed to Bannerji and Ramt.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Tully objected. “Vikram’s my intelligence officer. I’m going to need him.”
“Have Ed assign you another one,” Caitlin said. “Right now he’s one of the two best Ekhat slave wranglers in the universe, so he’s not any more disposable than they are. My orders,” she declared, staring Tully in the eye.
Tully stiffened and his jaw set for a moment, then he unbent. “Yes, Director.” He looked to Bannerji and Ramt. “Pack your stuff, guys, and get ready to move.” Then to Liang and Luff. “They’re going to Lexington. Make it happen, preferably without breaking either the prisoners or anyone else.” Back to Caitlin with a wry grin. “They’re all yours.”