The Span Of Empire – Snippet 43
On Strange Shores
Tully let his breath out after Ban Chao stabilized in the target sun. He could see Lim looking at him from where she sat on one of the jump-seats, and held up a hand. “Don’t say it.”
She closed her mouth and looked at him. He could see the thought behind her eyes. If you don’t like to Frame Point jump, why are you here? But since it was unspoken Tully ignored it.
Vanta-Captain Ginta krinnu vau Vanta stood in the center of the command deck, listening to every conversation and comment, reading the sensor reports from the bottom of the main view screen while he watched the currents of the sun around them. Tully relaxed a bit more when Ginta ordered, “Take the ship out of the corona. Show me damage control reports.”
The sensor report bar shrank in size and the damage control report bar popped into place on the view screen. As a Terran-built ship, the displays usually used human colors as defaults for readouts and reports, so Tully had no trouble translating the mostly green bar with a couple of specks of orange as “Came through with flying colors, maybe scraped the paint a little bit.”
He pulled his com pad out and checked on the jinau. As they had been doing this whole voyage, they rode out the jump in armor standing in their shock frames. All green there as well . . . wait, there was an orange blip. Tully touched it and it expanded to show detail. He snorted. Apparently Private Ciappa managed to get crossways in his shock frame and got his arm severely bruised in one of the jolts the ship had suffered when it first dropped into the sun.
Tully shook his head as he put the com pad away. You had to wonder about the private. A good kid; honest, hard-working, wanted to do well. Just not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Ah, well, Sergeant Cold Bear would see to him, and probably give him an earful about just how stupid he’d been this time around.
Ban Chao crossed the transition from solar corona region to clear space. “Take us to ecliptic north. Wide-sweep sensors!” Ginta ordered.
Tully stood and moved to stand beside the Vanta-Captain. “So, we’re good?” Ginta nodded. “When do we know if we’re in the right system?”
The sensor readouts on the main view screen changed. A plot of the system rapidly took shape, showing three, four, no, seven planets. Ginta pointed to one quadrant of the screen, and said, “About . . . now.”
Human numbers and Jao characters jumbled together in that quadrant, and sorted themselves out. One of the human command crew whistled.
“What?” Tully asked, restraining himself from grabbing Ginta by the shoulder.
The Vanta-Captain shifted to a posture that Tully sort-of recognized as expressing good humor or cheerfulness. He looked over to Tully and jerked his head at the screen. “That, Colonel, indicates there is more electromagnetic energy emanating in this system than Terra produces even now. It looks like . . .” he paused as the numbers changed, then continued, “at least three separate planetary sources, plus at least two lunar sources from moons of one of the outer planets, plus a few moving sources in the system.”
“So, lots of radio and TV,” Tully said, “and moving . . . you mean they have spaceships?”
Ginta gave the human shrug. “We won’t know for sure until we get close, but probably.”
“Caitlin’s going to squeee over this,” Tully muttered.
Flue Vaughan whistled when the readouts began feeding him real-time information after Lexington crossed the corona transition line of the target star into open space. Seven planets. Reading from the star out, first there were two rocky types near the star, only one of which was in the liquid water zone–barely. There was a third rock ball much farther out, definitely outside the liquid water zone. Beyond that were two Jovians and a Neptune cousin. The count was completed by something that was closer to a planetoid than a planet wandering in the outer edges of the system.
Caitlin Kralik got out of her seat and came to look over his shoulder. “Okay, what do we have? Did we get the right system?”
“Oh, yeah,” Vaughan said. “This is the jackpot. We have technology here, here, and here.” He highlighted first the two inner planets on his workstation main screen, then the third planet, and finally the more distant fourth planet. “Very strong electromagnetic activity that is regular and patterned, so almost certainly artificial. And,” he paused for a moment, “it doesn’t match any known Ekhat patterns.” He looked at her and grinned. “We found it, Director. This is what you’ve been searching for all along–a technological civilization to reach out to.”
Caitlin felt her facial muscles stretch in the biggest grin of her life. Vaughan’s expression matched hers. When she looked around, so did Caewithe Miller’s.
Another civilization! One unknown to Jao, to humans, and please, God, to the Ekhat as well. Another people to recruit to the resistance against the Ekhat.
And this was only the beginning! Where there was one, there would be others. She was as certain of that as she could be.
She wanted to laugh; she wanted to dance. In the end, she did neither, restraining her glee to a single fist pump.
Third-Mordent stood at Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s side watching various Ekhat moving through the harmony master’s great hall, listening to the servient choirs.
“Watch,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained whispered in an arietta pitched for Third-Mordent’s hearing only. “Watch for control, and learn.”
One of the Ekhat, a female, was slightly smaller than Third-Mordent, which made her the youngest in the hall. Third-Mordent didn’t know who she was. She wasn’t in any of the faction lists that Third-Mordent had been studying at Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s directions.
The young female moved stiffly, her head constantly moving to increase angles of vision around her. It seemed to Third-Mordent that the female was on the verge of dropping into predator mode. This thought was reinforced when her red-tinted eyes became visible.
None of the other Ekhat in the hall seemed to be aware of the young female. Ekhat of various factions stepped carefully around one another, with an occasional glimpse of a forehand blade but no other indication of the mutual antipathy that existed. This was perhaps due to the fact that they were in Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s hall, and none wanted to do anything that would provoke the harmony master. She had a reputation for completing arguments or conflicts begun by others in a very final manner. Third-Mordent, having been personally schooled by the harmony master, thought that such restraint on the part of those milling around in the hall represented the height of Ekhat wisdom.
That all changed in an instant. A larger, and therefore older, Ekhat male from a small splinter faction backed away from an even larger female of a more predominant faction at the same time that the young female was stepping back in a similar situation. Their hindquarters touched.
The young female jumped as if she had been kicked, then spun, forehand blades fully extended, slashing indiscriminately at every being near her.
Three Anj servients in one of the choirs were eviscerated. Their blood splashed across the rest of the choir, who trembled and moaned, but remained in their place and before long resumed their chanting.
The male whose touch had stimulated the young female’s frenzy screamed as both rear legs were slashed open. His wailing formed a counter-motif to the Anj cries as his legs failed and his hindquarters hit the floor in a growing puddle of white ichor.
One other reacted too slowly to avoid damage and received a deep slash along one flank.
Third-Mordent watched as forehand blades snapped open all around the hall. The servient choirs all scurried back against the walls and huddled on the floor as their Ekhat masters rampaged; shouting/screaming/keening/shrieking. At first, it seemed as if Dissonance had invaded the hall, but after a moment harmony began to emerge as half-tones/quarter-tones/fractal-tones splattered across the Ekhat sonic spectrum and merged into a towering colossus of aggressive harmony that had an almost physical presence in the hall.
The cries of trampled servients and wounded masters in counterpoint began to tease at Third-Mordent’s senses, almost alluring her to add her blades, her voice, and perhaps her ichor, to the frenzy. Ninth-Minor-Sustained still loomed at her side; that presence served to leach away the siren call of blood and blade dances.
Third-Mordent noticed that Ninth-Minor-Sustained was looking in one particular direction in the hall. She followed the harmony master’s gaze and focused on one Ekhat in particular; a female who, although not as large as Ninth-Minor-Sustained, was still imposing. To Third-Mordent’s eyes, the other female was still, which she found odd. There was no movement to the female; not even her tegument twitched; yet she seemed to exude threat, as all those near her to took pains to stay a distance away.
“That one,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained sang quietly, barely audible over the harmony mélange that pressed upon them, “that one has control.”
It was as if the harmony master had judged everyone else in the hall, and dismissed all but this female. Third-Mordent focused her attention on the female. She chirped an interrogative.
“Seventh-flat,” the harmony master responded.
That registered with Third-Mordent. The large female was a very important member of a Complete Harmony faction that mostly opposed Ninth-Minor-Sustained. Now she had Third-Mordent’s undivided attention.
Several of the other Ekhat were downed, either dead or dying. Most of the rest were wounded to one degree or another; white ichor streaked almost every white form in the room.
The young female that had provoked the confrontational performance had managed to avoid serious damage. She was currently backed into a corner, waving her forehand blades at any Ekhat who drew near. Until this moment, the members of the factions had focused on others who were nearer and more dangerous. That was no longer the case.
Two Ekhat, one female and one male, moved towards the young female from opposite sides. It was not a coordinated attack; the two were from different factions. From their movements, however, they were among the most adept of those in the hall.
The youngling was trapped in her error of having placed herself in the corner. She now found her movements restricted, and was unable to avoid/evade/elude the blade dancers who approached her. There was a whirlwind of flying flashing forehand blades, and then the young female was lying on the floor, broken. The two attackers immediately turned on one another.
Seventh-flat’s forehand blades flicked out. Third-Mordent watched as she danced through the hall, leaving a trail of smashed and maimed Ekhat behind her, until she confronted the two blade dancers. They had a bare moment of warning before she intruded in their dance, changing it to a deadly pas des trois. As good as they were, their dance was graceful, exhilarating, and foredoomed.
Third-Mordent watched Seventh-flat’s skill with some admiration. The blade-dancers were beset from the onset, forced to the defensive from the first stroke. Seventh-flat kept them reeling back and back and back, using her size, strength, and speed to force them down the hall.
In the end, Seventh-flat simply out-danced them, and in a final flourish of her blades left first one and then the other staring at the hall with blind eyes as their final breaths left their bodies and ichor oozed from rent flesh.
“Formidable,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained whisper-sang.
The nature of the harmony in the hall had changed. The choirs were huddling, with many of the servient members damaged. Many of the Ekhat were either dead or wounded so severely they could not contribute tones to the work. And even those who were still mobile and still able to sing began to fall silent as Seventh-flat picked her way back up the hall to where the young female Ekhat lay whose reactions were the catalyst for what had happened.
Third-Mordent was surprised to see the young female attempt to raise her head when Seventh-flat loomed over her. Third-Mordent heard the beginning of a keening tone from the youngling, before Seventh-flat completed her with a sudden quick stab of a forehand blade.
Seventh-flat looked to where Ninth-Minor-Sustained stood. She made no song, no tone, no sound at all; simply stared at the harmony master. At length, she flicked her forehand blades, snapping the ichor that coated them into straight lines on the floor. The blades folded back into their sheathes, and Seventh-flat turned and left the room; still atypically silent.
“That one,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained intoned softly after the door closed behind Seventh-flat, “that one is dangerous. She will lead her faction before long.”
Third-Mordent absorbed that prediction.