The Span Of Empire – Snippet 60
“Ship 15497 reports that the framepoint has been placed and tested and is now working properly. They confirm that they have activated the firewall so that no Ekhat can access it.”
Lieutenant Vaughan delivered the report to Fleet Commander Dannet as soon as she entered the command deck. He had to suppress a chuckle, though. “Firewall” was one of the human words that had become almost ubiquitous among the Jao in the fleet, for some reason. The Jao had a perfectly good equivalent term for the security concept, but it was four syllables long, and for some reason the fleet techs had latched onto the human word instead, to the amusement of the humans in the crews.
Dannet, pelt still damp from a good hard swim, spoke to the communications tech on duty. “Tell all ships to add it to their files.”
Flue leaned back in his workstation seat. The last five days since they had crossed the cometary ring and moved into the deepest space outside the Khûr system had been good for the fleet, he thought. Everyone had been so tensed up from the long jumps, and then the combative situation they had jumped into here, that they had all been super-keyed up. Even most of the Jao, who could have served as dictionary definitions of ‘phlegmatic’, had been jumpy.
Getting out of the combat zone and letting the crews stand down had been a good start, he thought. Taking the time to transfer some crew and supplies from the newly arrived ships to the rest of the fleet had also helped lower the stress levels a bit. And just several days of regular activity had been good.
All in all, he decided, things were calmer now than they had been for some time. He almost wished something would happen.
An alert went up on the main view screen, echoed on Flue’s workstation panel. I was kidding! he almost yelled as he jerked straight and sent his hands dancing across his control pads. I was kidding!
“Targeted by a laser!” one of the human techs yelled.
“Gamma-ray frequencies,” a Jao tech elaborated.
“Very narrow dispersion,” the first tech continued in a calmer voice, “low amplitude.”
Communications laser, Flue thought.
“Source?” Terra-Captain Uldra snapped.
There was a momentary silence as the techs queried their instruments. “Five degrees above ecliptic,” the human tech responded at last. “Uh . . . and it’s hitting our shields at a location and angle that places the source outside our orbit.”
“Fleet to alert status,” Dannet ordered. She looked to Flue. “Inform Director Kralik.”
Before Flue could do so, the Jao tech spoke loudly over the increased noise of the command deck, “Signal is modulated.”
Third-Mordent responded to a summons from Ninth-Minor-Sustained, finding her ancestress in the harmony master’s main performance hall, where Third-Mordent had first met her. There were no choirs today; no performances; no dance. There was, however, a male standing near the harmony master. She froze after two steps past the entry, forehand blades beginning to emerge.
“Stand,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained fluted. There was no command in the tone, no imperative. Only calm certainty.
Third-Mordent eased her forehand blades back into their sheathes and stepped carefully farther out into the hall, all the while examining the male. He looked familiar. His posture was tense, but he was not in or near predator mode–his head was held up and his manipulators were held high, digits folded away.
Just as Third-Mordent recognized the male as the last one with which she had blade-danced, he began to croon, stepping away from Ninth-Minor-Sustained. It was a simple sound, almost an arietta, though not quite, high-pitched, slow-moving, resonating within her.
Third-Mordent fell into synchrony with the male, dancing with him slowly. She unsheathed her forehand blades.
The male did not respond in kind, instead dancing in a circle around Third-Mordent, still crooning. Third-Mordent felt herself responding to the dance and the song, mirroring his steps while moving her forehand blades between them, beginning to echo his song. It disturbed her that she was responding rather than rejecting. It further disturbed her that Ninth-Minor-Sustained was not intervening.
The male extended a manipulator as he danced, pointing it at Third-Mordent. The digits unfolded, revealing one of them to be unnaturally long, with a bulbous bioluminescent tip literally glowing a sharp green color. Her eyes locked to that light instantly, and her voice strengthened as it sang the male’s song.
They danced together now, step matching step, note matching note, circling around a common center, narrowing the span with each completed orbit. Third-Mordent found that she could not unsynchronize with the male now. As he stepped, she stepped. If he dipped his head, her head dipped. She could feel his mind close to hers, his thoughts . . .
Suddenly the male stood directly before Third-Mordent, green-glowing digit raised before her eyes, his song flowing through the channels of her mind. Her steps slowed to a bare movement. Her forehand blades drooped as the glowing digit approached her. Her head raised to full extension, and her contribution to the song ceased as her mouth dropped open and the physiognomy of the interior of her mouth shifted. Cartilaginous flaps moved, sealing off both the primary trachea and the esophageal channel. She could feel them move, feel the changes happening in her body as a previously closed channel was opened.
The digit with its green bulb entered her mouth. Third-Mordent could feel it pass her outer teeth. It moved deeper, and suddenly she gave a violent twitch as her secondary masticators snapped shut and severed the digit behind the green glow.
The male whipped his manipulator out of her mouth. Third-Mordent’s primary teeth grazed the manipulator’s tegument as they reflexively closed.
Her entire body locked in place as she felt the severed digit with its packet of genetic codes being moved by the musculature of her mouth toward the newly opened channel. Slowly it moved, until it tipped over the edge and was moved down the channel by peristalsis until it arrived in the fertilization chamber.
The flaps moved back to their normal positions, sealing off the fertilization channel and opening back up the primary trachea and esophageal channel. Third-Mordent felt her head release and drop. Her forehand blades returned to their sheathes. She noted that the male’s manipulator had retreated close to his body, digits all folded away.
Ninth-Minor-Sustained stepped closer, halting when the male’s song took on a warning note and he stepped between them.
“You are now mated to Fourth-Tone-Quaver,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained sang to Third-Mordent in a panegyric form. “He is the best of your generation. Your progeny will be strong.”
The door to the command deck irised open. Caitlin restrained herself–with difficulty–from pushing ahead of everyone else in the car, and let the others exit ahead of her in proper Jao fashion. Tamt and the night-shift guards led the way, followed by her husband, which at last allowed her to move.
The guards peeled off to either side of the door, which irised shut behind Caitlin. She reached out and grabbed Ed by the arm, making him drop back beside her. Tamt had moved to stand by Lieutenant Vaughan’s workstation. Caitlin towed Ed in that direction.
“You say we’ve got another contact?” Caitlin asked.
“Yes, Director Kralik,” Vaughan answered, eyes on his readouts and fingers moving like spiders on amphetamines.
“Where from? The inner system?”
Caitlin turned to look at the main viewer. “From . . . outside the system?” Vaughan said nothing, but an orbit schematic flashed up on the viewer, with a line tagged to the Terra taif fleet moving out toward the dark between the stars. “So where are they? Do we know which star?”
Vaughan looked up. “It’s not a general pickup, like we did when we found the Khûrûsh. They found us. It’s a focused com laser.”
Caitlin heard Ed inhale sharply. She felt as if she had just taken a good jolt to the head. “What did you say?”
“I said they found us.”
“You mean . . .”
Vaughan nodded, his hands stilled for a moment. “Yes, Director. There is at least one other ship out here, and it appears they want to talk with us.”
“Ohmigod.” That slipped out of Caitlin’s mouth.
“I agree,” Ed said. “Do we have actual communication with them yet? Can we tell anything about them?”
“No communication with them yet, General,” Vaughan looked back down at his readouts, and his fingers started moving again. “But they do appear to be using Khûrûsh protocols with much higher com technology than the system has displayed before now. Ah, it looks like we have finally linked up to it.”
The main viewer flashed a couple of times, then a picture of a Khûrûsh-an materialized on it. The alien said about three short sentences, the picture froze for a moment, then it seemed to repeat.
“That’s a recording,” Vaughan said at the same time as one of the human techs on the command deck.
Dannet looked over at Vaughan. “Summon Pyr and Garhet to the command deck.”