The Span Of Empire – Snippet 54
“Director,” Fleet Command Dannet said, “you may want to look at the main view screen.”
When Caitlin did, she saw the familiar schematic of the Khûr system. It took a moment for her to see the additional clouds of symbols spreading out from the various planets and headed toward the elements of her fleet.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“If you think those are fleets of ships launched by the natives of the system and heading toward us, then yes.” Dannet’s angles were at dealing-with-the-moment. “And some of those launched from the outer planets are of respectable size.”
Caitlin turned to Pyr. “Have we had any response at all to our messages?”
Pyr folded his hands together. “No,” he said with a trace of sadness.
Caitlin looked back at the view screen. “How many?”
“Fifty-nine total from the home world,” Lieutenant Vaughan said, “all heading toward us. Sixty-five from the inner world, all headed for our main fleet. Seventy-five from the third planet, and one hundred and nine from the gas giant, all headed inward but no definite target yet.”
Caitlin snorted. “We know who the target is.”
“Well,” Vaughan acknowledged, “it’s too early to tell if they’re aiming for our little group or our main fleet or both.”
“They have ships the size of Harriers,” Dannet added to the conversation.
“They won’t be as good as Harriers,” Caitlin countered.
“But they won’t be as easy to kill as those small ships we just encountered, either.”
“You assume we’re going to be fighting them,” Caitlin said with a frown.
Dannet said nothing, simply moved to a neutral posture, which for her at this moment was almost provocatory.
Caitlin thought for a moment, then looked to Vaughan. “Get me a line to Gabe Tully, please.”
Vaughan touched a series of controls on his workstation.
“Tully here,” came the response over his speakers in a few seconds.
“Gabe,” Caitlin said, “have you got anything at all out of your guests yet?”
“Nope. We just got the surviving officer to start talking to us. Haven’t got past the name, rank, and serial number stage yet.”
“Damn,” Caitlin responded. “Okay, number one thing we need to know is if we leave the system, how far will they pursue us? Number two thing we need to know is we know they have much bigger ships than we’ve seen, but do they have heavier weapons?”
“You got it,” Tully said. “Tully out.”
Caitlin crossed her arms and stared at the floor. We can’t make friends if they won’t talk to us. And even if we continue here and just keep blowing their missiles up, sooner or later something’s going to go wrong and we’re going to be even worse off in trying to make connections. I don’t really want to do this, but I don’t think we have any choice. Time to get out of Dodge before we burn a bridge we’ll really want later on.
She looked up. “Fleet Commander, all ships to return to main fleet as soon as possible, then head for galactic north at best speed until we pass the boundary of the system. We will defend if attacked, but not return fire unless I order it.”
Dannet shifted to compliance-to-oudh. “As you direct.” She turned to issue orders to the fleet.
Wrot stepped up beside Caitlin. “Remove the possibility of confrontation until we understand this system. A good idea.”
“No,” Caitlin muttered. “Not a good idea. It’s just the least-bad idea at the moment.”
Boyes looked at Lim, the Khûrûsh-an momentarily forgotten. “He’s my what?”
The alien–Kamozh–chattered again. Lim listened, then held a hand up and turned to Boyes. “He says that he is your slave by right of conquest and surrender.” She shrugged. “Or at least that’s as close as I can come to it. There are additional strands of meaning that do not work well in English.”
Boyes looked at Kamozh still lying on the floor, and holstered his pistol. He gave a wild-eyed look for a moment at the mirror that was the observation window.
The sergeant walked over to the small table that had been pushed to one side of the room and sat down on it. He gestured at a chair for Lim. She took a seat, holding her staff in one hand. “Honestly? A slave? I thought only the Ekhat went in for that stuff.”
Lim shook her head. “There are no exact parallels between the Khûrûsh and you humans, but if you think of Shogunate Japan blended with equal measures of Homeric Greece and the British Raj, you’re approaching a concept. Except that their emperors are very smart, and very perceptive, and very capable. Also not given to allowing second chances for failure.”
“But I can’t keep a slave! I mean, even if Colonel Tully let me, what would I do with him?”
“Leave that for the Colonel and Director Kralik,” Lim said.
Boyes took a deep breath. “Okay, try talking back to him. Tell him I said he’s got to talk to you to talk to me, and I will take it very badly if he gives you any problems. And tell him to sit up.”
“I have changed your directive slightly, Director.” Dannet approached Caitlin.
Caitlin just looked at the big Jao, and crossed her arms, not going to a Jao posture.
“I have ordered the main fleet to head for the system limits now rather than wait for the return of our group. We will join them on a converging course.”
Caitlin looked at the main view screen, where the Khûrûsh fleets were moving toward them. It wasn’t hard to understand the fleet commander’s reasoning. The sooner they were out of the way, the sooner there would be no risk of contact.
The fleet commander turned away, and Caitlin looked back at Wrot. “Does anything about this whole experience seem fishy to you?”
“In what way?” Wrot asked.
“Everything that’s happened since we came into this system.” She walked away a few steps, then turned and walked back. “I mean, nothing has seemed right since we got here. This is a high-technology civilization. Not as high as the Jao, but definitely at least a little ahead of where Earth was when you Jao first arrived.
“When your first fleet moved in, as soon as we understood you were from the stars, even as you made your assault landings, we started sending you all kinds of communications, trying to get some kind of understanding of who you were and what you wanted.”
Caitlin repeated the walk away and return steps. “Here, nothing. Nada. Zilch. We know they know we’re here, because of the radar. But they never offered anything.”
Walk away, return. “I could almost accept that as a manifestation of extreme caution. Or pathological isolationism. Maybe even cowardice. Except that once we began the approach, once we initiated a communication contact using their frequencies and their language, the only response we got was an attack. No warning, no cautions, no wave-offs; just a full-bore attack.”
She stood by Vaughan’s workstation. She knew he was listening, as well as Wrot and the Lleix at the next workstation.
“We’ve been reacting,” she said, “not analyzing. My fault. I wanted the contact to work so badly that I didn’t consider that these folks are not us, and their universe view is apparently very different from ours. But it’s not too late to think about that.”
Caitlin looked around at those close by: Wrot, Vaughan, Lim and Garhet, Caewithe and Tamt.
“Maybe they’re crazy. Maybe they’re insane, like the Ekhat. But I have trouble believing that that could be a successful survival strategy for more than one race. And I refuse to believe that there are only three sane races in this corner of the universe.”
Human, Jao, and Lleix heads all nodded. They were tracking with her so far.
“So why would a whole race and civilization respond this way? Why would their reaction be ‘Destroy the invader’, at first contact, without even a single attempt to talk?”
There was a long moment of silence, broken by Pyr. “There has to have been a resounding traumatic event in their history that changed their cultural outlook.”
Caitlin considered that thought, then nodded. “I can buy that. So what would have caused this kind of mindset?”