Trial By Fire – Snippet 15

Chapter Eight

Washington D.C., Earth

Gaspard stared at Downing with wide eyes. “What do you mean? Why are you so sure they would attack our homeworld–and in violation of the Twenty-first Accord, no less?”

“It is a rather straight-forward deduction, Mr. Gaspard. Firstly, any place where one of their stars is within nine point seven light-years of one of our stars is a possible jumpoff point for a general invasion.”

Wasserman frowned at his palmtop. “I’ve already run those numbers. Unless the Arat Kur were going to take a circuitous route through their most far-flung system”–he pointed to the tip of the 3-D geodesic python’s tongue–“then they’ve got to jump into Barnard’s Star from across the nine point two nine light-year gap at 61 Cygni. That’s the only place where they can cross the gulf of deep space in one hop, and it brings them right into our home systems.”

Downing nodded. “And Barnard’s Star is also the key system when it comes to isolating us from our best colonies.”

“Okay, I get the danger to Earth,” Opal said with a frown, “but how could they cut us off from all the best green worlds by taking just one system?”

Wasserman’s stylus stilled. “Because all of our traffic and contact with the worlds beyond Alpha Centauri and Barnard’s Star runs through Ross 154. From Barnard’s Star, it’s one shift to Ross 154. Once they’re there, they’ve got the run of our house.”

Gaspard’s faintly contemptuous demeanor had become far more serious. “Very well. So we have some idea of how our most likely adversary would proceed against us. Perhaps it is time to consider other threats.” He turned to Hwang. “Doctor, what have you learned from the Ktor environmental tanks you scanned at the Convocation?”

Hwang frowned. “Not much. Any further conjectures regarding Ktoran biology are going to require much closer analysis of the data. Or maybe better data.”


“Because all we’ve got to go on is respiratory wastes, and those results are inconclusive.”

“What do you mean, ‘inconclusive’?”

Hwang looked vaguely embarrassed. “I can’t tell which are the gases they inhale and which are the ones they exhale. Assuming they breathe at all.”

Gaspard shook his head. “More simply, please.”

“Let me use a human example. If I were to collect the gases you exhale, how would they differ from what you had inhaled?”

“There would be a higher concentration of carbon dioxide.”

“Exactly. That’s the primary waste gas. And there’d be a lower concentration of oxygen, the metabolically necessary gas. And, if I knew nothing about human physiology other than those respiratory gases and the temperature at which we exist, I could be reasonably sure that humans are carbon-based, and therefore, use water as a transport medium and solvent.”

“But with the Ktor–?”

“With the Ktor I can’t tell from the results which gas they need and which is their waste gas. And there’s no guarantee that their respiration is based upon gases at all. They could be metabolizing what they need from liquids.”

“Which means that we know nothing about them, either?” Gaspard asked, his fingers spread wide in frustration.

Downing shrugged. “That’s not quite true. Dr. Hwang’s study of the PSI limits of their tanks indicate that the gases they breathe are at a maximum pressure of two point four atmospheres. Also, there are some brief mentions of the Ktor in the Dornaani self-reference materials.”

Gaspard cocked his head. “But there is a prohibition against sharing information about another race.”

“Perhaps this is a special case, since the Ktor are inextricably bound up in the founding of the Accord. They were the first race that the Dornaani encountered, and had a major impact upon the Accords themselves and thus, Dornaani history.”

Gaspard ran a finger under his jaw line. “Did the Ktor coauthor the Accords, then?”

“No. The Accords’ principles were inherited from an earlier epoch that Alnduul has mentioned fleetingly. But the Ktor were the source of most of its privacy requirements. They refused to share any biological information on themselves. They refused to indicate their world of origin, claiming that it was very distant and had long ago become unable to support life. But the most troubling aspect was that the Dornaani were unable to verify the number of systems that the Ktor had settled.”


“Because the Ktor already had FTL capability and refused to let the Dornaani within their borders. So the Dornaani either had to accept their word, or wait for some other race with which to found the Accord. Evidently, the vote to found the Accord with the Ktor was very narrow indeed.”

Wasserman smirked. “You’ve gotta wonder if the descendants of the ones who lost the vote have been saying ‘told you so’ ever since.”

Elena was shaking her head slowly. Downing let his voice drop to a slightly softer pitch. “What is it, Elena?”

“According to Ben, the sensor data indicates that the Ktor must inhabit an environment where the temperatures are so low that any of our worlds–even Mars–would be utterly uninhabitable for them. Which means that Ktor-suitable worlds would only exist in the farther orbits, which are usually dominated by gas giants and iceballs, like Pluto. True?”

“Yeah,” agreed Wasserman, who was watching Elena with considerable attention now.

“And how many worlds in those orbits have we discovered which would have seas or atmospheres of the right composition?”

Lemuel frowned. “Three or four–maybe.”

Elena nodded. “So these are among the most rare of all planetary types.”

“Yeah, I guess you could put it that way.”

“Well then,” Elena said, looking around the conference table, “how is it that the Ktor have managed to find so many suitable planets to settle? And why should they give a damn about the expansion of, or even interaction with, carbon-based life-forms? They must know we have no interest in their habitable worlds and vice versa. But the Ktor keep their borders inviolate, and their privacy absolute, so that–from day one–the Custodians can’t get answers to these questions.” She frowned, stared at the far wall. “It sounds to me like they’re hiding something.”

Downing nodded. “I agree, but the Ktor are not our immediate worry. With their prime world located at 58 Eridani and the Dornaani homeworld at Gliese 290, they are both in a different strategic theater. And as Lemuel reminded us, the Custodians can prevent the Ktor from making any incursions into our space.”

“And how can we be sure that they are able to do so?” Gaspard asked skeptically.

“Oh, they have the technological capability, Mr. Gaspard,” Downing answered. “When the Dornaani took Misters Riordan and Corcoran and me to Barnard’s Star, they did it in a single instant, and from a standing start.” He let Gaspard digest that for a second. “That’s sixteen light-years in the blink of an eye, without any preacceleration.”

Gaspard’s eyebrows rose. Hwang whistled long and low. But Elena looked thoughtfully at her folded hands. Downing leaned in her direction “El, you don’t seem to find this very surprising.”

She didn’t look up. “Why should I? The Dornaani have been interstellar travelers and overseers for seven thousand years, possibly much more. And perhaps they inherited technologies from the great powers of whatever epoch preceded this one, perhaps from the same exosapients who transplanted humans to DeePeeThree. Given all that time and experience, what might the Dornaani be capable of now?”

Gaspard nodded somberly. “Indeed, Ms. Corcoran. What would they not be capable of?”

Downing cleared his throat. “While we are on the topic of exosapient capabilities, there’s one last item of highly classified information that I must share with this group.” Downing was silent until every eye in the room came to rest on him. “While I was at Barnard’s Star, I received a package of data that was originally in Nolan Corcoran’s possession. It indicates that the doomsday rock which was on course to blast Earth back to the Bronze Age thirty-six years ago was, in fact, a weaponized Kuiper-belt asteroid, pushed onto an intercept trajectory by gradual mass-driver acceleration. That acceleration took place while the Ktor were assisting the Dornaani with their Custodial duties in this system.”

“So those damn water-tanks tried rock-nuking us?”

“Major Patrone, we are unable to confirm that. However, we do know that the Ktor had legal and ready access to our system at the time the rock was weaponized.”

Gaspard rubbed his chin. “And the motive? After all, less than six weeks ago, the Ktor attempted to woo you into joining their protest against Dornaani preeminence.”

Elena shrugged. “Yes, but that may have been the Ktorans’ plan B, Mr. Gaspard. For all we know, their plan A was to drop the doomsday rock on us and thereby remove us from the current game before we could even get on the playing field. When that scheme failed, recruiting us may have become their next-best alternative.”

Gaspard’s nod and pout suggested that he not only approved of Elena’s hypothesis, but of her quick wits. “Yes, that would be consistent. Either action has the same implicit end: to destroy the Accord, or at least isolate the Dornaani and make them ineffectual.”

“And to grab turf,” muttered Lemuel. “If you’ve read the report, then you know that the Ktor representative came on to us like Ribbentrop trying to sweet-talk Chamberlain into allowing Nazi expansion. Gave me the chills.”

Gaspard nodded absently in Wasserman’s direction as he checked his watch and rose. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I found this briefing most stimulating. And now I must go.”

Downing forced himself to remain courteous, despite Gaspard’s indecorously abrupt leave-taking. “Mr. Gaspard, are you sure–quite sure–this is all the briefing you require?”

“Quite certain, Mr. Downing. I read your basic reports thoroughly on the flight over. The topics we have discussed were the ones that wanted further explication. Good day.” With a brisk stride, he was out the door.

“Damn,” muttered Opal, staring after him, “guess he flunked charm school.” She turned to the rest of the group. “Now what?”

“Now,” answered Downing, “we wait.”

“For what?” asked Wasserman.

“For tidings of peace,” sighed Downing, “or war.”