The Span Of Empire – Snippet 41
Zhao leaned forward and poured more tea into Lim’s cup, followed by his own. The last few drops fell slowly from the spout of the dragon pot into his cup. “Last of the pot,” he said with a smile. “We must savor it.”
Cradling his cup in both hands, Zhao looked at Lim. “Tully said you want to learn to fight. Can you explain?”
Lim went still, holding her own cup before her and looking down into it. The tea seemed to be an ebon fluid as it sat within the black enameled iron cup, and she caught a glimpse of her own face reflected within the dark mirror.
“I . . . The Ekhat have driven us and harried us for so long. We have lost so much. We . . .” she looked up at Zhao, to see him sitting very still, “we Lleix are not a warrior people. We have no elian like the jinau, or your human armies. I told Tully, I no longer wish to be helpless.”
“Ah,” Zhao said, a small smile crossing his face. “That is a worthwhile goal. And it is one in which I may be of some small help.”
He drained the last of the tea from his cup, and set it down on its leaf saucer with a click. “To begin with, we must ask and answer the question, ‘Who is Lim?'”
Lim followed suit in drinking her tea and setting her empty cup down. Her hands moved to rearrange the folds of her robe, without thought or volition on her part, almost as if they were separate discrete beings. “I am Lim, of the Lleix,” she replied after a long moment of silence.
Zhao shook his head gently. “No, that is your source, what you are out of. It is not who you are.”
“I am Lim of Terralore elian,” she tried again.
“That is what you do, not who you are.” Zhao’s voice was calm and soft.
A very long moment passed with no sound but the whisper of her fingers adjusting the brocade of her robes. At length, she forced them to still and looked back at Zhao. “I am Lim of the dochaya.” She felt empty as she said that, expecting him to accept it and refuse her.
“That is what shaped you,” Zhao said. “And from what Tully has told me, it was a hard shaping, one that wounded and scarred you.” He stopped for a moment, and Lim felt the depths of the wounds and the strictures of the scars as she had not since right after she had been rejected at the Festival of Choosing years ago. She looked down, not surprised to see her fingers grasping her robes, crumpling the fabric. It took another effort to force them to relax and smooth out the brocade.
“But . . .”
Lim’s head jerked up as Zhao continued.
“. . . that is still not who you are.”
Lim tilted her head as she studied the faintly smiling human, who sat across the table from her, motionless with his hands resting lightly on his thighs. She considered him; then tilted her head the other direction as she considered his responses to her statements.
“I . . .” she hesitated, “am Lim.” She said nothing more.
After a moment, Zhao’s smile grew broader, and somehow brighter as his eyes narrowed and the skin crinkled at the outside corners. “Precisely so,” he said. “Exactly so. You are Lim. You are a person of worth. That is the foundation of your life, and upon that foundation we lay the first stone–you are now my student.”
“Electromagnetic signals detected.”
Flue Vaughan’s head snapped up at that announcement from the human sensor tech, and he hit five separate control pads on his workstation with two motions of his hands.
Terra-Captain Uldra faced the tech. “Artificial or natural?”
“Very regular,” the tech responded. “Analysis indicates data content. Artificial.”
Vaughan hit more controls.
“Out-system.” The tech tapped controls of her own. “Weak signals that aren’t aligned with any significant bodies in the system. Not much out that direction except gravel and dust until you hit the system’s edge.”
Terra-Captain Uldra looked to Vaughan, who touched another control on his workstation.
“What is it?” he heard growled into his earpiece a few seconds later.
“Sorry to disturb your rest cycle, Fleet Commander,” Flue said, “but I think you’d best come to the bridge.”
There was a click in his earpiece. Vaughan looked back to where Uldra was still looking at him. “She’s on her way.”
Uldra nodded, and returned her focus to the tech.
Third-Mordent felt Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s forehand blade slice across the tegument of her left foreleg as she spun away in panic from the harmony master’s attack. She leapt to her right, trying to get far enough away that she could turn and resume her defense.
“Stop.” Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s voice fluted down an arpeggio, cold as steel that had been in space in the shadow of a planet.
Third-Mordent froze in place. That had been the first lesson that her ancestress had taught her. It had been painful to learn, but learn it she had. When Ninth-Minor-Sustained said halt, she meant it.
Third-Mordent waited in position, trembling with both fear and bloodlust, as Ninth-Minor-Sustained walked softly around her to face her, looking her eye to eye. “You do not anticipate well,” the harmony master intoned. “You should have blocked that last cut, as well as the two before it. Your jump was ill-advised at best, and most likely would have resulted in your death if you had faced an opponent of any skill and experience. You will study the files I send you tonight, and we will begin again tomorrow.”
The harmony master turned and walked away down the performance hall, leaving Third-Mordent still frozen. As she neared a door, she looked back and sang, “Release.”
Third-Mordent almost fell when the tension released from her limbs. She straightened slowly, folding her forehand blades away and raising her manipulators. They trembled a little; her mind was trembling, as well.
The door opened at Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s approach. There was a squeal as she made a sudden lunge through the doorway, then the door closed again as she turned back with an Anj servient in her manipulators. The creature squirmed in the harmony master’s grasp, its piping squeals echoing from the walls of the hall.
“Control,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained whisper-sang, “begins with control of yourself. Do not move.”
Third-Mordent froze again. The harmony master walked up to where she stood, holding the Anj right before her. The squeals of the servient were beginning to affect her; her vision began to narrow.
Ninth-Minor-Sustained exposed the edge of one forehand blade, and barely kissed the Anj with it. Dark blood began to ooze from the resulting slice, and the servient’s cries grew louder.
The harmony master took one manipulator, dipped the tip of one of the dactyls in the servient’s blood, and then dabbed it around one of Third-Mordent’s olfactory sensors. The scent of the fresh blood impelled Third-Mordent toward predator mode; vision further narrowing, manipulators dropping and forehand blades rising.
Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s manipulators twisted suddenly and snapped the spine of the Anj. The servient shrilled in agony, then subsided to moans as the harmony master dropped it to the floor in front of Third-Mordent.
She lost sight of the harmony master’s great form as she focused in on the wounded servient, dragging itself across the floor, leaving a dark smear of blood behind it. Low chirps and moans accompanied its struggles, further inciting the young Ekhat to go into predator mode.
“Control,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained sounded a whisper-aria behind her. “Do. Not. Move.”
Third-Mordent managed, somehow, to continue her freeze. Inside her skull, her predator senses raged, seeking to leap onto the Anj and rend it into gobbets. Something, though . . . something kept her still. Some facility of her mind, dimly awakened as yet, still exerted iron constraint over her and locked her body down. Nothing twitched. No shivers or trembles. Nothing.
Ninth-Minor-Sustained gave a whisper of satisfaction.
The moans of the Anj began to shape a motif in Third-Mordent’s mind. A chaconne, it would be, she thought. The blood on the floor took on a luster to match the music beginning to form in her thoughts.
Zhao Jiguang picked up a cup of tea and sipped on it as he contemplated the medical images.
“Hmm. More proof that God has a sense of humor. Ball and socket joints for the shoulders and hips I understand, but for the elbows and knees? Wow.” He set the cup down and grasped his chin between his thumb and forefinger. “Well, at least she’ll be flexible.”
“Hmm. Center of mass is lower than on a human. Female thing? Human similarity?” Zhao flipped over to another file and compared two images side by side. “No, same propensity in the males. Hip structure is massive. Wonder if they developed on a heavy-gravity world?” He made a note. “Ground and center will be affected.”
Zhao flipped back to the first image file. “Okay, flat feet. Very flat. Wonder if they can move up on their toes at all?” He made more notes.
After a few more minutes of study and thinking, Zhao was raising the tea cup to his mouth again when he flipped to the circulatory system mapping, at which point he blew tea all over the workstation’s view screen.
Zhao didn’t curse as he wiped off the workstation surfaces. That was not due to lack of incentive, but rather to lack of sufficiently inspired invective. Two hearts? Two parallel circulatory systems? How was chi supposed to flow through a system like that?
It was about that moment that Zhao realized the depth of the challenge he had accepted when he agreed to teach Tai Chi to Lim. It was also about that moment when he decided that Gabe Tully, while not precisely evil, perhaps had more than a bit too much yin in his system, and apparently not enough yang. He would have to meditate on how that was possible, given that Tully was otherwise the poster child for yang-ness.
He turned back to Lim’s med file, and continued his research.
Caitlin was roused from a dream featuring her husband by a com pad tone. It took a few moments to come to full consciousness–she really didn’t want to leave even a dream about Ed. She finally opened her eyes. “What?”
“Sorry to disturb you, Director,” came the voice of Lieutenant Vaughan. “Fleet Commander Dannet requests your presence on the bridge. We’ve got signals, ma’am.”
“On my way!”
She threw the covers back and bounced out of the bed. Two steps into the bath cabinet, where she shucked off her sleep suit, used the toilet and grabbed a cleaning towelette to wipe face and body in place of the shower she really wanted. She stepped back into the other room, pulled on fresh clothes from the drawers under her bed, ran her fingers through her hair, and grabbed her com pad as she headed toward the door. It irised open just before her nose hit it.
“Bridge,” she said to the bodyguards who snapped to as she plunged past them. She heard them following as she trotted down the corridor towards a lift.
The lift door opened. Caitlin strode out onto the command deck, followed by her bodyguards, and headed for where Fleet Commander Dannet stood with Uldra. Behind her, the lift door hissed again as it irised open. She looked behind her, and saw Wrot enter and follow in her steps. A moment later, the four of them were standing together.
“Talk to me,” Caitlin said. “What have we got? Intelligent signals?”
“Yes, Director,” the fleet commander replied. “Signals with structure, at any rate. The assumption is intelligence-generated.”
“Can we . . . no,” Caitlin corrected herself, “of course we can’t read them yet.”
The lift door hissed yet again. Dannet nodded toward the Lleix who entered the command deck. “They will begin the effort to decipher and translate. But we need not understand the content to locate the source.”
Chulan and Helot headed for the sensor techs. Pyr and Garhet split off and stood near the command group. Caitlin nodded to them, and returned her attention to Dannet.
“So, do we know where they are coming from yet?”
Dannet’s frame assumed the angles of awaiting-assured-information. “Several of the flotilla ships are spreading out now. It will take some time, but we should be able to establish sufficient parallax to be able to determine the source star.”