The Span Of Empire – Snippet 56
On the Frontier
“It appears that you found your goal,” Aille continued from the main display.
“We did and we didn’t.” Caitlin ran one hand through her hair. “Yes, they are a developed space-faring culture. But,” this time she ran both hands through her hair, resisting the urge to pull it out, “they appear to be xenophobic to an almost insane degree.”
Aille’s position shifted, but she couldn’t tell quite what angles he was assuming. “Like the Ekhat?”
“No,” Caitlin replied. “Or at least, not quite that bad. But they will not talk, and they attacked us as soon as we approached a planet. Now, less than a day later, they’ve launched a massive attack from all their planets. We’re headed out of the system to keep from having to destroy them in self-defense. You need to do likewise. Get your ships out past the cometary ring, and we’ll join up then.”
Aille nodded. “Agreed. We will talk.”
The view screen blanked, then reset to the display of the system schematic with the various Khûrûshil ships noted with past and projected trajectories all shaping toward the Terra taif fleet components.
Caitlin looked over to Wrot. “Okay, what is Aille doing here? Not that I’m not glad to see him, or anything, but having him pop up here is just really odd.”
Wrot’s posture changed, moving through several until it settled into the angles of reluctant-convergence. “My doing, I suspect. I sent word to Preceptor Ronz of your plans.”
“You what?” Caitlin stared at him in disbelief.
“When we arrived at Ares Base, I sent a report to Ronz describing your decision to move the search to the Sagittarian Arm.”
Caitlin crossed her arms. She was pleased with herself that her response was in a moderate tone. “Okay. Was there any particular reason why you felt a need to do that?”
Wrot shrugged. “You made a significant change in the direction of the effort. I reported that to him.”
“Without telling me.” That wasn’t a question.
“It wasn’t necessary for you to know. It would have changed nothing you did.”
Caitlin felt her teeth grinding together. She turned away and clasped her hands behind her back to keep from assuming the simple angles for pure outrage.
He’s not human, Caitlin reminded herself. He’s not back-stabbing you. She knew Wrot well enough to know that he would have no problem being blunt to her face. A snort escaped her at that thought.
She felt her jaw relax and turned back to face the old Jao.
“Do I have oudh over this search and this fleet, or not?”
“Director, you do.” Wrot had shifted to neutral angles, but his whiskers kept shifting to something hinting of concern. He did not drop his eyes from Caitlin’s however.
“Then why? Why go behind my back with this?”
“Not behind your back,” Wrot said. “Parallel lines. You have oudh,” he continued with a wrinkle to his muzzle, “but the preceptor is the sponsor of the search. I am under your oudh for the tasks of the search, but I remain under his when he asks for opinions and reports.”
“But why would he want that? Does he not trust me after all?” She fought to keep the whine from her voice.
Wrot’s ears flipped out and his whiskers tilted in the abbreviated posture for wry-humor. “The Preceptor trusts you as much as he trusts Aille,” he said. That caused Caitlin to blink in surprised. “But he is also the preeminent Bond strategist.”
“So?” Caitlin asked after a long moment of silence.
Wrot’s angles moved from wry to sly. “Caitlin, Preceptor Ronz understood all the truth and dependent corollaries about the saying ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ long before he ever heard it.”
“So you’re a reality check on me?”
Wrot huffed in irritation. “No, nor am I a spy, or anything else like that. Stop thinking like a human.”
“Mmm, you might think of me as a parallax view.”
That thought stopped Caitlin’s thoughts. “So what did you tell him? No,” she said immediately after, “I don’t want to know.”
She turned away again and took a slow walk around Lieutenant Vaughan’s station, breathing slowly and deeply. Her anger had not totally faded, and neither had her concern.
“Did you think I had some reason, some motive, to try to keep my decision to relocate the search a secret?” she said over her shoulder. “That would have been pretty stupid, after pulling into Ares Base and stocking up on everything there was to get.”
Wrot shrugged. “You’re not stupid,” he replied. “You might recall that neither am I.”
Caitlin took several steps away, and stood watching the main view screen, squeezing her hands tightly where she gripped them behind her back. She felt the eyes of the group clustered near Vaughan’s workstation staring at her.
At length, Caitlin turned and paced back to face Wrot. “Do I have oudh over this search?” she softly repeated her question, looking up into his eyes.
“Director, you do.” Wrot said nothing more, moved nothing, simply stood in neutral.
“Good.” Caitlin nodded at the confirmation. “We’re done with this, then. Except–” she released her hands and assumed angles for absolute-command-to-subordinate“–you will not communicate outside this fleet in any way without my express approval. Understood?”
The old Jao said nothing, but his angles shifted to obedience-to-lawful-commands.
Caitlin looked at the others, including Vaughan. “Not a word,” she said. “Not. One. Word.”
Her tone was much the same as it always was. Nonetheless, everyone obviously felt discretion was the better part of valor at that moment. No one spoke.
Aille took position beside Terra-Captain Sanzh and watched the main view screen in Footloose’s command deck, waiting for the rest of his flotilla to arrive. Three of his seven ships were now clear of the photosphere, one was still rising in the plasma currents, and the sensor tech had reported that the rest should emerge from their jumps very soon.
“Directions, Governor?” Sanzh asked quietly as the fourth ship crossed the transition of the photosphere.
“Have your navigator shape a course that takes us directly away from those fleets,” Aille said, with a nod toward the view screen, “but in such a manner that we can before long bend to galactic north and join with Director Kralik’s fleet.”
The Terra-captain gave a brief version of a simple compliance posture, then moved toward the navigation workstation.
Aille waited for time to complete. It didn’t feel that it should be long.
He spent the time considering both the tactical and the strategic situation found with these new aliens. It did not surprise him that Caitlin had found another intelligent race with a high technological civilization. It did, however, surprise him how quickly she had done so. He mulled that while he watched the main view screen display, with the changing fleet dispositions. Ollnat, he at length decided. Always ollnat with these humans. Caitlin’s decision to move to the Sagittarius Arm was such a perfect example of why the Jao needed Terra taif.
At that moment the last of the flotilla’s ships emerged into clear space. Terra-captain Sanzh looked to Aille, angles flowing into awaiting-direction. Aille considered the view screen’s presentation of the system and the ships within it. The time flow crested.
A thought occurred to Aille at that same moment. “Contact Rafe Aguilera on Trident,” he ordered.
The view screen cleared, then showed Rafe’s face.
“Rafe, here is your field test for Trident. Go back into this sun, and cruise the northern quadrant until you’re either down to a week’s supplies or you are ordered out.”
Rafe’s eyes narrowed and he peered into the pickup as if he was trying to read postures. “You reading something into this, sir?”
“No,” Aille responded. “But if something does happen, I think I want you there, not out among the comets and dust clouds.”
“Gotcha,” Rafe said. “Cruise the north quadrant until you tell us to come out. Do you want reports?”
Aille thought about that. He had discovered some time ago that humans had almost a fetish about reports. They would invent reasons to create and demand reports. The Jao disliked this.
On the other hand, Aguilera was good at his job. “Yes, on whatever schedule you like.”
“Will do, sir. Anything else?”
The view screen blanked, and after a moment Trident turned and moved back toward the sun. It wasn’t long before the big ship was lost behind the curtains of plasma. Aille then turned to Terra-captain Sanzh. “Go.”
Pleniary-superior Tura appeared at Aille’s side as the captain passed the word to his navigator, who in turn passed the word to the other ships of the flotilla. “Why did you leave Trident behind unsupported?”
“So it would be of use. That is what the ship is designed for, after all.”
Tura accepted that with no visible reaction. She said nothing more, and after a time moved over to watch the navigation workstation.
“Honored Rhan, please permit us to make an ending.”
It startled Kamozh to hear himself addressed as Clan Lord. For just a moment, he expected to hear his father’s voice respond to the address. But then bitter memory of what had happened a few hours ago resurged to the forefront of his mind.
The young Khûrûsh-an leader turned from where he was watching a display of the seemingly receding system primary. Khûr had been the primary god of his people for ages. In the last few generations, however, as the knowledge of the Khûrûsh increased, and as they attained spaceflight and moved out to other planets in their system, more and more of the people began to think that whoever and whatever might be considered to be the creator of the Khûrûsh themselves, the star was not it. Kamozh considered himself to be an enlightened and educated individual, but even so, at a very basic, very elemental level of his being, seeing the star dwindling in size in the viewer awakened an almost atavistic sense of panic that the young officer was having a bit of trouble squelching. Perhaps even more than a bit.
He was not surprised to find all five of the surviving crewmen of the clanship Lo-Khûr-sohm abased before him in the “embracing dirt” position. In addition to the old clan leader, they had also lost Penzheti, their chief engineer, wounded when their ship had been shattered around them by the monsters in their great ships. The survivors were flat on their bellies, heads curved to the right, limbs outstretched except for the right forehand curved around to cover their eyes. All except one, that is, and his lips wrinkled a bit in sad humor to see his father’s most trusted servant, Weaponsmaster Shekanre, head raised enough to stare at his new clan leader and ask for death.
“We have failed the Khûr-melkh,” Shekanre said, “and we have failed your father and you. Please permit us to make an ending, that we might expiate our failures.”
“How will you do it?” Kamozh asked, out of a sense of morbid curiosity. “We have no weapons.”
“I will end each of the others,” Shekanre replied, “then I will tear out my own throat.
The old Weaponsmaster could probably do that, Kamozh mused. The main artery to the head was located just under the skin at the front of the throat, and it could be ripped open with their own claws, although it was not exactly easy to accomplish, especially on oneself. It was not, however, the customary way to commit suicide among the Khûrûsh. But of all the Khûrûsh Kamozh knew, Shekanre was at the top of the list for having both the strength and the self-discipline to execute himself in that manner.
The fur on the back of Kamozh’s neck bristled at the thought. He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, Shekanre was fully abased and no longer looking at him. It took a moment for Kamozh to find his voice.
“Get up, all of you.” Kamozh clapped forehands and midhands together sharply. “No one is going to die. And besides, you look silly.”
There was a flurry of motion as all of the retainers pushed up and settled on their haunches, midhands on the floor and forehands at their sides. Kamozh looked at them all with a lifted lip, exposing eyeteeth as a mark of sharp emphasis.
“Which one of you had the brilliant idea that you should just waste your lives and leave me by myself among these monsters?” The tone of his voice was somewhat humorous. The growl that followed was not.
Most of the others looked at the youngest of the retainers, who had the grace to look abashed and turned his head away from Kamozh. “Ah, Neferakh,” Kamozh said drily, “you have read one too many of the old tales. This is the real world, not the realm of heroes and sorcerers and night warriors.”
There were chirrups and chuckles from the others, until Shekanre said, “Your father, Rhan Mezhen, would have allowed it, Rhan, for the honor of the clan.”
“Perhaps he would,” Kamozh replied, “but I am not my father.”
They all fell silent at that, for it had been only hours since their clan leader, Kamozh’s father, had been killed by the monsters before their very eyes.
At length, Kamozh continued with, “My father was honorable, and did his duty and fulfilled his responsibilities to his death. And it is just as well, probably, that he has passed into Khûr’s presence, as he would find no honor in being a slave of the monsters.”
There was another moment of silence.
“For myself,” Kamozh said, “I believe that honor is larger than the stories make it. I believe that honor is deeper than the lines that lead to the throne of the Khûr-melkh.” There was a sharp inhalation from several of the retainers. “I believe that honor is wider than the dance of Khûr-shi and her sisters around The Holy Light. And I believe that we will have honor here, if no other way than to each other.”
“Here–here among the monsters?” Shekanre asked. “Among the enemies of Khûr?” The retainers were all wide-eyed, even the Weaponsmaster.
“Even so,” Kamozh said. “I don’t know if it is Khûr who has placed us here, or the Trickster. But we will have honor.”
The retainers were silent, but one by one slipped back into the “embracing dirt” position as they placed themselves in submission to his leadership. Even Shekanre did so, saying nothing.
Kamozh looked at them, and sighed. “Get up,” he said quietly. “All of you, get up. We will meet the future on our feet, not our bellies.”