The Span Of Empire – Snippet 42
Aille stared at the image of the great red sun in the main view screen. Solar flares from the IS class variable were evident as it neared the end of its contraction cycle. He looked to Terra-Captain Sanzh as he completed giving orders to the navigator.
“Caitlin’s fleet made an assault jump through that star?”
Aille’s angles shifted to gratified-respect, echoed a moment later by Yaut. “Let us be thankful that General Kralik had the wisdom to find a Frame Point ship, and that Director Kralik had the wisdom to take it with her fleet.”
He looked out of the corner of his eye to where Ed Kralik stood. The human’s posture was not Jao, but every line of his face and body was so still that it appeared to be the human equivalent of the neutral that Pleniary-superior Tura was displaying on his other side. Aille suspected that Kralik was getting a much deeper appreciation of just what Caitlin had been doing for the last year or more. It also looked like the general didn’t much care for that knowledge.
Aille turned his focus back to Terra-Captain Sanzh. “Has your navigator located the next Frame Point?”
“Pass orders to the other ships. When she is ready, begin the jumps.”
Lim looked at Zhao across the mat.
“You want me to what?”
“Put off your robes, please.” The human was calm. “You are not human. I am sure I can teach you, but before I can begin I must see how your body moves. I can only tell so much from video images.”
They were standing on a mat in a corner of the gymnasium compartment. Human and Jao jinau were working at every machine and every mat in sight. All seemed to be ignoring them.
Lim considered Zhao’s request. Looked at from his perspective as a teacher, she decided it was reasonable. She began to open her robes, preparing to remove them as Zhao had asked. His eyes widened and he held up a hand. “You can go in the dressing room to change.”
Lim stopped and looked at the human, tilting her head slightly as she considered him. “Lleix have no nudity taboo,” she said after a moment.
Zhao’s eyes crinkled as he grinned. “But humans do, and even more, we are curious. If you strip down here, we’ll be surrounded by the curious and neither we nor they will accomplish anything this afternoon.”
Lim restored her robes to their normal hang. “You don’t want me in my robes, and you don’t want me in my skin. Just how is it you expect to accomplish your goal?”
Zhao’s grin grew even wider as he held up a bag. “Inside this is a set of workout clothes that I think will fit you. You should be able to figure out how to put them on; you’ve seen humans in similar clothes for years now.” He handed it to her and pointed toward a door. “You will find cubicles in there where you can store your robes and put these on.”
Lim took the bag, and did as she was asked. Once in a cubicle, as Zhao called it, she carefully hung her robes–first outer, then inner–from hooks in the wall. And he was correct; she had very little trouble with donning the loose trousers and the sweatshirt that were in the bag. It did help a little that he had attached labels that said “front” to one side of each.
She looked at herself in a mirror that hung on the back of the cubicle door. A very strange reflection stared back at her, a Lleix head popping out of human clothing. If only Jihan could see her now, she mused. Even the head of Terralore elian, Jihan, herself considered radical by many of the Lleix that had reluctantly followed her lead, might be taken aback by what Lim was doing. She raised her hand to shoulder level. The sight of a Lleix hand coming out of a human sleeve gave her a moment of insight into human humor.
She reached for the door handle, and left to join Zhao on the mat.
Third-Mordent spun out of the reach of the Ekhat facing her in the dance hall. A male, he was bigger than she, and made it clear he would put her down if he could. He had sung nothing in her hearing; had simply rushed her as soon as Ninth-Minor-Sustained had admitted him into the room.
She recalled her ancestor’s instructions given moments before the male was admitted. “Control. You will control the fight. You may strike lightly with your forehand blades, but no biting. Dominate him by your skill, not your rage.”
Despite his size, the male was not as fast as Third-Mordent, and so their dance took an inevitable pattern, with the male making short rushes and turning in the center of the room as Third-Mordent danced around him, forehand blades flicking out, creating patterns of cuts on his white tegument. White ichor oozed out until the male looked as if he had been rolling in it.
The pattern spoke to Third-Mordent, called to her, until an aria took shape in her mind. As she evaded one strong rush, she began to sing the aria, high, strong and cutting, fractal-toned. Her steps began to follow the melody patterns; swooping, jumping, sliding. The male was confused, and as she sang, he more and more would respond to the melody, steps and cuts falling into the pattern of Third-Mordent’s music.
She began to shape the music, using it to drive him back, back, back; cutting off his attempts to reach her flanks. The music grew–in length, in volume, in complexity, in power–and the male continued to retreat before her, eyes rolling wildly, forehand blades flailing almost at random as she danced in to make more touches with her own blades.
The aria crested in a blast of rapidly down-pouring fractal notes that drove the male to huddle on the floor. Third-Mordent brought the aria to a conclusion with a single attenuating tone that died away slowly until even she wasn’t quite sure when it ended.
Ninth-Minor-Sustained entered the room from another door and advanced until she stood before Third-Mordent. “Not what I anticipated,” she sang. “Effective, though.” She turned to look at the unstirring male. “Complete him.”
Third-Mordent turned her head to look at her ancestor, saying nothing but raising a question just the same.
Ninth-Minor-Sustained spun and stared down at her progeny. Third-Mordent held still.
“If he cannot resist even a youngling like you better than that, he is not strong enough to be bred. Complete him. Now.”
Third-Mordent lifted a forehand blade and did as she was commanded.
Caitlin’s com pad pinged, and she tapped it with her finger. Lieutenant Vaughan’s face appeared. “Yes?”
Vaughan grinned at her. “We have sufficient data that the Starsifters have identified the probable source of the signals. It’s a G5V class star much like our sun, lying near the edge of the Sagittarius Arm proper. We’ll be out of the inter-arm void when we land there.”
“Good!” Caitlin’s face spread in a grin of her own. “I’m ready to be in new territory, and it’s great that we have a possibility this fast. When does Dannet think we can begin the shift?”
“We’re waiting on the Bond ship to finish tuning the new Frame Point, then we’ll be ready to leave. All ships report ready now.”
“Do we have a read on planets?” Caitlin asked.
Vaughan looked down then back up. “Enough to know there are some.”
“Notify me when the Bond ship reports.”
“Will do, Director.”
Vaughan’s face winked out of the com pad. Caitlin sat back, laughing. It was all she could do to not rub her hands together. They had survived the jumps, and now . . . now it appeared she was going to be proven right. A prospective civilization with at least some level of industrial technology was in their sights.
Caitlin gave up restraint and clapped her hands together, laughing louder. It was going to work. After all this time, Preceptor Ronz’s vision was going to be proved out. If the old strategist was here, she’d have thrown her arms around him in a big hug. She wrapped her arms around herself instead.
“It’s going to work,” she whispered.
“Hey, Joe,” Zhao heard from behind him as he walked down the corridor. “Wait up.” He turned to see Gabe Tully–Colonel Tully, actually, since he was in uniform and wearing his rank emblems–walking toward him. He walked backward slowly, waiting on Gabe to draw even to him, at which point he resumed normal progress. “Were you looking for me?” he asked.
“Actually, yeah,” Gabe replied. “First off, that Szechuan beef with artichokes and quinoa pasta was awesome the other night. That needs to go into the regular meal rotation.”
“Yeah, the head cook’s already hit me up for the recipe. I suspect you’ll see it again before too long.”
“Great!” Tully grinned, which made him look even younger than he was. And that reminded Zhao that Tully, for all his rank, was not exactly a graybeard yet.
“And since that was first, there must be a second. Hmm?” Zhao arched his eyebrows.
Tully looked around, then dropped his voice. “How is Lim doing? I mean, don’t violate any master/student stuff, but I’d like to know if she’s doing okay.”
“No great secrets, Gabe.” Zhao spread his hands. “We’re actually moving kind of slowly, because I have to rethink everything from how it works with a human body to how it will work with a Lleix body. I mean, one body, one head, two arms, two hands, two legs, two feet, yeah–but it all works differently, if you see what I mean.” He grinned.
“Yeah,” Gabe grinned back. “I kind of figured it might. But she’s doing okay?”
“Better than okay. I have to slow her down, make her do other stuff. She’s pretty focused.”
Gabe snorted. “Oh, yeah. Lim could teach focus to a laser drill.”
Zhao laughed, but he could see the point.
Gabe looked around. “Okay, gotta split off here and go be the colonel. Thanks for the chat, Joe.”
And with a wave of his hand, Gabe was gone down a cross-corridor.
Zhao chuckled. Gabe talking about Lim being super-focused was a bit of the pot and the kettle, he thought.
Caitlin strode into the command deck, followed by Tamt, Captain Miller, and a couple of the rank and file bodyguards. She stopped three steps inside to take stock of the crew. Caitlin could always get a feel for how serious things were just by watching the command deck staff. Even the mostly stolid Jao would develop stiffness in their angles if things got dicey. The humans, of course, could be read like a book; more than that–after working with and reading Jao postures, reading humans was like reading a primer. Her mouth quirked at that thought. Somehow she didn’t think most humans, including her father, would appreciate being compared to “See Dick run,” when someone like Aille would be like reading James Joyce’s Ulysses.
The crew was serious, on task, excited, but still relaxed. So, no one expected trouble with this jump. Good.
She stepped up beside Fleet Commander Dannet.
The big Jao looked her way. “Director. The fleet is ready to proceed.”
Caitlin let her angles flow into accepting-information, then on to accepting-responsibility. “Very good. Begin.”
She walked over and sat down at her customary station. She was actually learning to read some of the readouts that Lieutenant Vaughan routed her way.
Dannet turned to the communications officer. “Orders to Ban Chao. Jump when you are ready.”
Caitlin sat back in her seat, excitement building. This was it! A chance to meet a new species who perhaps knew nothing of the Ekhat. An opportunity long desired, now at hand.
She leaned forward in her seat, waiting for Lexington to follow the pathfinder.