The Span Of Empire – Snippet 48
Tully was watching the feed of the combat on his helmet display when Vanta-Captain Ginta came back into the circuit to him. “Director Kralik has ordered only defense against the missiles. We are not to fire on the Khûrûshil craft themselves.”
Tully snorted. “No-brainer, man. It’s hard to make allies of anyone after you’ve wasted a bunch of their people.”
Tully thought he detected a tone of dry irony in the one-word response from the captain. “Any word from the fleet commander about taking over any of the ships?”
“No.” And with that, Ginta was gone again.
Caitlin looked to Pyr and Garhet. “Any response from any of the Khûrûsh ships?”
“No, Director,” from Garhet, as Pyr continued sending out the message.
Caitlin turned and stalked over to where her bodyguards were standing. There were four, including Caewithe and Tamt. She crossed her arms and frowned at the deck.
“What’s wrong?” Caewithe asked.
“The stupid Khûrûsh won’t talk,” Caitlin snapped. “I don’t know if they’re isolationists or xenophobic, or what, but they won’t talk. We’re smashing everything their ridiculous excuse for a space navy can throw at us, and they won’t talk!”
She fumed in silence for a moment before Tamt said something that was covered by one of the techs calling something out behind her. “What did you say?”
“I said,” Tamt spoke louder, “you have an assault ship filled with jinau. Capture one of the Khûrûshil ships and ‘invite’ the crew to come speak with you.”
“An excellent idea,” Caitlin heard from behind her. She looked over her shoulder to see Wrot giving a Jao smile to Tamt. “An idea worthy of the one whose service you are in.” Aille, in other words. He shifted his focus to Caitlin. “From the mouths of babes, Caitlin. If they won’t listen to you, then bring them in and make them face you.” He shrugged. “Not very subtle or elegant, perhaps, but we’re Terra taif, not Pluthrak kochan, or even Narvo. We’re just one step above the hillbillies.” His muzzle wrinkled in a Jao smile. “Direct and blunt is good, in this case.”
Caitlin turned the thought over in her mind. It went against her grain, but even she could see that the big ships couldn’t keep playing keep-away from the Khûrûsh craft forever. She turned and faced back across the command deck.
“Fleet Commander Dannet!”
“Order Ban Chao to capture one of the Khûrûshil ships, take the crew captive, and bring them aboard Lexington.”
Dannet’s angles almost snapped into ready-compliance. That was an order she was obviously gratified to receive.
As Dannet gave the order, Caitlin muttered, “Come on, Tully, make this work.”
“Colonel Tully,” came the tech’s voice in his ear.
“Fleet Commander has ordered Ban Chao to capture a Khûrûsh ship. Vanta-Captain Ginta directs that you be prepared to board whatever target is chosen and take the crew into custody.”
Tully triggered the company com link. “XO, Top, company COs, link to me now.”
He waited for the pips to light up on his heads-up display to show they had linked to him on the company command frequency. “Okay, here’s the skinny. Ban Chao is to take one of these little ships and remove the crew. I assume they will eventually end up on Lexington, but that’s not our decision. So, have you guys worked out a plan for boarding one of these things?”
“Yes, sir,” Major Liang responded. “Lieutenant Vaughan on the Lex gave us a readout on their general size and estimated configuration, based the Lex’s sensor feeds.”
Tully’s display flickered as the imagery fed into his helmet display. “Damn,” he said, “that’s nice work. Remind me to do something nice for Vaughan when we get a chance.” He did a quick study of the ship. “Okay, call it fifteen meters in diameter, and roughly one hundred meters long. That’s not even a rowboat in comparison to Lexington or Ban Chao. What do we know about the inside?”
Colored outlines were superimposed over the ship outlines. “Red appears to be a nuclear reactor”–that was close to half of the ship–“yellow appears to be storage for liquid hydrogen fuel”–that took up over half the rest of the ship–“and green appears to be the crew compartment.”
Tully studied that. “Any clue at all on how many crew?”
“Best guess is between four and six, eight at the most,” the XO said. “That’s not much volume, and if they allow any radiation shielding at all between the crew and that nuclear engine, that’s going to take away some of that space.”
“Hmm. So who’s got the shortest fire team?” There was a moment of silence, with the ghost of a chuckle from First Sergeant Luff. “Come on guys, surely you thought of that. From what the Lleix pulled out of the broadcasts, the typical Khûrûsh-an is shorter than we are by a bunch. The interior of that ship is not going to be scaled to us, and I can’t see sending someone the size of Corporal Johnson or Sergeant Luff over there. So who’s got the shortest fire team? Top?”
Luff’s voice had a hint of a laugh. “That would be Charlie Company, First Platoon, Alpha team, Colonel–Sergeant Boyes and his mob.”
“Perfect.” Tully grinned. Boyes was short and slight, but was as hard as a carborundum drill bit. Anybody who served on his team had to be just as tough, because Boyes would have run them off if they weren’t. And coincidentally–or not–none of them were much taller than their sergeant.
“Okay,” Tully said. “Boatright, it’s your team, you brief them on what we know about the ship. Make sure they understand the plan is to capture the crew, not ventilate them. Top, you get with the armory and make sure that they’re loaded with close-quarter weapons, including some non-lethals.”
“Yes, sir!” from the lieutenant.
“On it, Colonel,” the first sergeant assured him.
“XO, have the rest of the troops stand by. Who knows what other fun this picnic might provide?”
In the event, it proved to be extremely frustrating. For a few moments, here and there, Tully almost chuckled. The elephantine Ban Chao was trying to corral and capture something on the order of a Jack Russell terrier, and every time it looked like it was going to happen, the Khûrûshil ship would skitter to one side and evade the much larger Terran ship.
After a couple of hours and several failed attempts, Tully took steps.
“Can you patch me through to Director Kralik?”
There was no response from the tech, but in a moment a pip of light showed up on his helmet display, and Caitlin’s voice was in his ear. “Yes?”
“Caitlin, I know you don’t want to trash the Khûrûshil ships, but you’re going to have to order one of them disabled by Pool Buntyam, or we’re never going to get this done.”
There was a moment of silence, then an “All right,” which sounded as if it had been dragged out of Caitlin.
The light pip went out, and Tully grinned for a moment. Then he sobered up, and hit the command frequency again. “Heads up, Boatright. Pool Buntyam is going to disable one of the ships. Have your team ready.”
Caitlin ended the com call from Tully. Her first reaction was to get angry at Tully for interfering. That didn’t last long, though, as she remembered something Ed had told her when the searching expedition was about to voyage out for the first time.
“I’m giving you Tully for your over-all jinau commander,” Ed had said. “Not because he’s a member of Aille’s service, and not because he’s become a good friend, although the first would be an acceptable reason and the second would be understandable. I’m giving you Tully because he’s good at what he does, because he’s got a good reputation among the troops, and because he’ll shoot straight with you. I’m especially giving you Tully because he’ll tell you what he thinks is right, even when you don’t want to hear it. If he tells you anything, especially if it has anything to do with combat, listen to him. Got it?”
“Got it, Ed,” Caitlin whispered in the here-and-now. She slipped the com pad back into a pocket, and looked around the command deck. “Fleet Commander,” she called out.
Dannet faced her direction with her angles sliding into attention-to-oudh. “Yes, Director?”
“Please have Pool Buntyam‘s laser crews disable one–and only one–of the Khûrûshil ships in front of Ban Chao. They are to make every effort to avoid damage to the crew compartment.”
Dannet’s angles moved to gratified-compliance. She looked to Terra-Captain Uldra. “As the Director has ordered. Advise Pool Buntyam and Ban Chao.”
Caitlin crossed her arms and leaned against Lieutenant Vaughan’s workstation as Uldra issued orders to her weapons officer. She looked over at Tamt. “That was a great idea. I guess I’ll keep you around a while longer.”
Krant-Captain Mallu krinnu ava Krant heard the orders from Fleet Commander Dannet. He looked across the command deck of Pool Buntyam to his officers.
“Kaln, give the target selection to weapons.”
As the senior tech moved to a console, Mallu’s pool-sib Jalta, who was also his Terniary-Commander on Pool Buntyam, moved closer and said quietly, his angles all neutral, “Why Kaln? Why not the weapons officer?”
Mallu knew Jalta very well, and knew that for his pool-sib to go to the trouble of mustering a formal posture, especially neutral, meant he had concerns about something. He moved his own angles to a definite confidence-in-orders, and said, “Kaln rides the time-sense better than anyone else we have. You remember what she did in the last battle. I will use anything that gives us an edge. If you ever take command of this or any other ship, you will too.”
They looked at each other, still for a moment. Then Mallu stepped past Jalta to stand behind Kaln as she leaned forward, put a finger on the workstation screen, and said, “That one. Put a high level blast here,” she tapped the screen, “and a medium level shot here.” The tech straightened and turned to stare Mallu in the eyes. “That will disable the craft.”
Mallu looked at his weapons officer.
Tully saw the laser strike happen. He was watching his helmet display. Pool Buntyam‘s lasers didn’t emit light in the visible spectrum, of course, so his first clue that they’d been fired was when he started seeing pieces of the hull of one of the closest ships begin spalling and spinning away from the ship. It took him a moment to understand what he was seeing.
“Boatright!” he snapped.
“Get ready. I think we’ll have our target right where we want it any moment now.”
Pool Buntyam‘s lasers continued to savage the Khûrûshil ship. Its thrust suddenly shut off, and Tully’s jaw started to drop as he saw the lasers literally cut through the body of the ship, so that the aft portion began spinning rapidly away.
The forward portion, with the crew compartment and the remnants of what was presumed to be the hydrogen fuel tank began a slow forward tumble.
Tully was really glad he wasn’t taking a ride on that ship. His stomach lurched in sympathy.
Lim watched as the jinau troops sorted themselves out, most standing to one side or another of the assault bay. A small group of human jinau–actually small jinau, as well, being dwarfed by most of the Jao and even some of the other humans–moved toward the other end of the bay, grouping behind one of their leaders.
A large jinau moved toward her, opening his helmet faceplate to reveal First Sergeant Luff’s smiling face. “You’ll need to leave the bay, ma’am,” he said. “We’re going to evacuate the atmosphere from it.” He pointed to a nearby opening. “You can go through that hatch, then up the stairs to the control room right there”–now he pointed to a window in the wall above her head–“if you want to see what happens. I doubt there will be much to see from here. All the excitement will happen outside the hull.”
Lim moved through the hatch, handling her staff with care, and heard the sergeant shut the hatch behind her. She found the stairs to the control room, in which she found one Jao and two human crewmen sitting at consoles. They glanced at Lim, but said nothing. She could stand behind them, though, and watch over their heads at the jinau in their places.
Why do they do it? Lim wondered, still mystified.