The Span Of Empire – Snippet 55
“Paranoia,” Vaughan said quietly. Caitlin turned to him, realization dawning in her own mind. “We’re not . . .”
“. . .the first alien race they’ve met,” Caitlin completed the thought. “Damn, but that makes sense. That would explain everything that’s happened.” She thought some more, then said, “Open that channel to Tully back up, please.”
After a few moments, she heard, “Tully here. What’s up, Caitlin?”
“Colonel Tully, we’re coming to the conclusion over here that the Khûrûsh have had at least one bad experience with another alien race, maybe more than one.”
There was a whistle, then, “Yeah, I can see that. We’re starting to get more conversation going, over here. I’ll make sure that gets added to the questions.”
“And one more thing, Gabe,” Caitlin said.
“I really want to know if they have ever seen or heard of the Ekhat. Show them pictures of Ekhat and Ekhat ships. If they’ve been traumatized, well, who do we know is the most likely candidate to do the traumatizing?”
“Got it. Will do.”
Third-Mordent was again blade dancing; again with a male who was larger and stronger and perhaps faster. He was also smarter than her last opponent. He did not rush her, simply strode forward, forehand blades at the ready, head down and red eyes glaring at her.
She danced aside from his first blow, diverted his second to the side, and spun inside the reach of his blades, blocked both the grasping claw and the small manipulator with a movement of one of her own forehand blades while she reached up and carved a crescent around one of his eyes with the other.
The male recoiled with a hiss of pain, and Third-Mordent danced away, untouched.
White ichor was flowing down over the male’s eye, half-blinding him. He repeatedly shook his head, slinging the ichor in spatters around him, but the gash was wide and the flow profuse. His manipulators would not reach that high.
At that moment, Third-Mordent knew that she could complete the male. It might take her more than a few passages in the dance, but she could do it. Ninth-Minor-Sustained had not cautioned her against it, so it would be permitted. She cocked her head to one side, viewing the male from the perspective that displayed the fresh wound to its best advantage. Would completing this one be wasteful, she considered. Fewer males survived the crèches than females, and there had been generations that had been blighted by a lack of viable males.
Third-Mordent formed a leit-motif in her mind, then sang it. The male turned his head so that his clear eye focused on Third-Mordent. She danced around him in a controlled slow pavane; he turned to follow her.
She sounded the leit-motif again; his body started trembling. At first it seemed to be the predator urge–but no, his head was lifting. Still, he was poised with forehand blades ready, tensed, poised, intent. It surprised her that, as intensely as he appeared to desire to spring on her, he was restraining himself. She darted a glance at Ninth-Minor-Sustained, who stood at one end, a looming monolith, unmoving.
Third-Mordent focused her gaze back to the male, sounding the leit-motif a third time. He edged away from her, raising his forehand blades. She flowed to one side; the male turned, but stepped back a pace. She stepped the other direction. He backed away from her.
Step by step, slow move by slow move, she danced and he retreated.
He ended in a corner, hemmed in, unable to dance away. Third-Mordent paused in front of him, poised, one forehand blade still and one drawing a slow line in the air. The one clear eye moved between the moving blade and her face. The blade stopped, and so did the eye.
The pose held for a long moment.
“Enough.” Ninth-Minor-Sustained broke her silence and her pose. Third-Mordent stepped away and relaxed, lifting her own head and folding forehand blades away.
The male didn’t move as Ninth-Minor-Sustained approached him, singing a soliloquy. Her manipulator lifted a cauterizer to treat the male’s wound, and Third-Mordent smelled the order of burned flesh. Ninth-Minor-Sustained stepped back and waved a manipulator at the male, who folded his own forehand blades away and moved to the nearest door, slipping through it when it irised open.
Third-Mordent stood still, head high and manipulators lifted, as Ninth-Minor-Sustained turned to face her.
“And now you see the third lesson of control–controlling others. We begin–now.”
Third-Mordent felt a frisson of fear at how Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s voice did a rapid glissando into her lowest register. The fundamental pitch she attained resonated with overtones that pierced Third-Mordent’s mind in ominous ways.
Lim turned away from the hologram that was floating in front of the entranced Kamozh. “He says they have never seen anything like that ship.”
“Okay, show him the Ekhat next,” Tully said, watching over Boyes’ shoulder. The Khûrûsh-an had reacted in surprise when Tully had entered the room, but had quickly settled down when Tully had simply merged into the Boyes/Lim group.
Lim touched a control on her com pad, and the hologram flickered and changed to the floating form of an Ekhat adult.
Kamozh recoiled with another baritone hiss. He chattered away at Lim, pointing an emerged claw at the hologram.
“He says that that is a monster indeed, nastier than anything they have ever seen.”
“So they have never seen the Ekhat before?”
Lim spoke to Kamozh. He chattered back at her. She turned back to Tully. “Never to his knowledge.”
Caitlin pointed to Vaughan. “Put it on public, please.”
After a moment, Tully’s voice was heard in the command deck.
“Caitlin, here’s what we have at the moment. First of all, the larger ships use more missiles, some of the same type as we’ve seen, but some also with nuclear warheads.”
Dannet turned at that note and began issuing quiet orders to the communication technician.
“Second,” Tully continued, “according to the one guest who is talking, once we get beyond the orbit of the outermost planet, the Khûrûshil ships should break off. Definitely if we move on past the outer cometary ring.
“And last, they have apparently never seen the Ekhat.”
“Okay, thanks. Keep us posted if you get more information out of them.”
Some hours had passed, and the Terran fleet was moving well beyond the shell of the fifth planet’s orbit, continuing to head for the frontiers of the Khûrûsh system. Caitlin’s flotilla had rejoined the fleet without more combat, although the Khûrûshil ships from the inmost planet had launched a few missiles at their closest approach, a couple of which Pool Buntyam had blown out of existence just to be safe. The Jao propulsion technology was definitely superior to the natives’, and once the Terran ships were clear of the possibility of direct interception, their lead kept increasing.
Once the fleet was clear, Caitlin returned to her quarters.
She had not intended to go to sleep, just to rest for a few moments, but she awoke to her com pad pinging at her. Rolling out of the bunk, she tapped a control. “Yes?”
“Director, you’d better get back to the command deck.” That was a Jao voice she didn’t place. “We have ships jumping into the sun.”
“Who . . . never mind. On my way.”
Caitlin didn’t say anything to her guards as she flew by them. They managed to catch up to her by the time she reached the lift to the command deck. “Come on, come on, come on,” she urged the lift.
When the doors opened, Caitlin burst out into the command deck. “What’s happening?” she demanded.
“Two ships in the sun, one emerging from the photosphere,” Terra-Captain Uldra responded as the lift door irised open and a dripping wet fleet commander entered the deck. Dannet had obviously been in the pool when the notice reached her. “More about to arrive.” The lift door irised open again, this time admitting Lieutenant Vaughan who slid into his workstation and started tapping control pads like a drummer.
“Are they Ekhat?” Caitlin’s heart was in her throat.
Before Uldra responded, one of the communications techs called out, “Contact made, asking for Director Kralik.”
“Put it on the screen,” she ordered, pointing to the main view screen. The system template display snowed out, then cleared to reveal a very familiar face.
“Hello, Caitlin,” said Aille.