Trial By Fire – Snippet 23

For one brief instant, Caine could not look away from the surreal scene of Trevor being hug-crushed by a crab-roach. Then reflex and adrenaline took over. Caine uncoupled the carabineer clip, and, with the decompressive flow almost gone, he aimed himself at Trevor and kicked at the wall.

Too oblique and too hard. Caine went corkscrewing toward the floor, instead, hit the deck at an angle, and bounced. He swam through a slow, spastic cartwheel. Between frantic curses and calls to Trevor, his own breath echoed loudly in his ears. Only when he came to a stop–upside down and with his legs tangled in the hanging garden of cables–did he realize that Trevor was answering his calls.

“Caine, I’m–okay. Take it–easy. Reorient–yourself.”

“Reorient myself, hell! Christ, Trevor, what were you thinking? That damn thing might have killed you. Might still intend to.”

“Caine, we–can’t h-hurt–it. It’s rigged–the bridge. Could have–r-rigged engineering. With a–bomb. Need it–alive.”

Damn it, he’s right–and I’m a fool for not realizing the same thing. Caine kicked his legs free and somersaulted to turn himself over and reassume an up-down orientation that matched Trevor’s. He was vaguely aware that he had performed this tricky zero-gee maneuver with the surety of a pro.

The alien’s six-limbed grasp on Trevor was tight, but not dangerously so. It was, however, immobilizing. One of the alien’s legs had wrapped around the upper part of Trevor’s left armpit, jamming that arm in an awkward, elevated position. Trevor’s right arm was pinned to his side by another appendage, and while his legs were free, they were out of reach from any surface against which to push.

Oddly, the Arat Kur–for it was certainly not a Ktor or a Hkh’Rkh–seemed less capable of movement than Trevor. Although dominating the human with a grapple that would have been the envy of any collegiate wrestling star, the exosapient was motionless. Caine drifted closer cautiously, thumbed the ammunition selector back over to the setting that loaded antipersonnel rounds. He laid the gun against the side of the Arat Kur’s thorax.

“Might as well–aim at–head.” There was a grunt of extra effort in Trevor’s voice.

“As if we have any indication that’s where its brain is. And I thought you said you were all right. Your voice: you can hardly breathe. That damn thing is crushing you.”

“No–not the–the reason.”

“What do you mean, not the reason?”

“Not the r-reason for my–voice. Shock;–everything stiff. Hurts. Hard to talk. Can’t m-m-move well, either.”

Caine looked for and found clinical signs consistent with the aftermath of electrical trauma. A small, but high-speed tremor in Trevor’s right arm was visible even though the Arat Kur’s claws held it in a viselike grip. There was also a faint intermittent twitch in his friend’s left arm and more pronounced involuntary motions in his right leg. At least there was still movement, but that didn’t preclude more serious internal damage. “Trevor, read off your biomonitor values.”

“Already–checked. Pulse and temperature high. All–all others, nominal. I’ll be–okay. J-just get–get this guy–off me.”

Caine extended his arm, pushing himself a meter back from the tethered amalgam of human and alien. Detaching the Arat Kur necessitated an initial inspection of its physiology–or, rather, of its bulky, podlike vacuum suit.

The fabric of the suit was tougher and more rigid than that used in human suits. Each limb covering was comprised of separate, well-articulated segments, making it unnecessary to ensure mobility by using more pliable materials. Reasonable. The Arat Kur body seemed to have no waist, no hips, no long limbs: in short, it was only capable of limited movement. With less of a demand for flexibility, Arat Kur garment designers could focus more on strength and durability.

It also seemed that Arat Kur didn’t have heads, simply a cluster of sensory organs on their front-facing surface. Accordingly, the alien’s spacesuit was topped by a wide, shaded dome, flanked by a brace of small, highly distorting mirrors. Caine considered his own fun-house reflection for a moment. No head meant no neck. No way to reposition the visual sensory organs without repositioning the whole body to face the object to be observed–unless the visual field was expanded by using mirrors. Hmmm. I’ll bet these bastards spent a lot of evolutionary time worrying about, and being terrified by, threats from their rear. Possibly a useful tactical and psychological factor.

Mounted just beneath the Arat Kur helmet-dome were two well-articulated sleeves, each ending in a set of cruciform mechanical claws. The claws were heavier and blunter than he would have expected in a tool-using species, but then he reconsidered his conclusion. Vacuum gloves turned even the slenderest human hand into a clumsy, bloated paw. The same could certainly be expected of alien space garments.

There were a few external control surfaces visible, all of which were in recessed pits ringing the rim of the helmet-dome. Glyphs were visible under each touch-sensitive panel. More were printed on the small, dorsally-mounted life-support unit. All of which were absolutely meaningless to Caine.

Not discovering anything particularly useful to the purpose of prying the Arat Kur apart from Trevor, Caine started with the most basic approach: brute force. However, repeated attempts to lever open the alien’s claws, or to cause its limbs to relax, were completely unproductive. “Maybe it’s died. Maybe rigor mortis has already set in.”

Trevor’s voice, sounding somewhat more relaxed, disabused Caine of that notion: “No, it’s alive.”

“How can you tell?”

Trevor’s teeth chattered once before he replied. “It’s sh-shaking s-slightly.”

Trevor sounded like he was growing cold, probably going into shock. And the exosapient was obstructing access to the manual overrides for Trevor’s suit thermostat–

–Suit thermostat? Hmm. That might be a better way of getting the Arat Kur to move: fiddle around with the life-support unit on its suit. But adjusting the alien’s life-support pack might also kill it. The device was a mystery of orange and green lights, recessed indicators, and small access panels, all linked to the rear of the helmet-dome–

Wait. The rear of the helmet dome. Of course. That gives me an even simpler option. Caine maneuvered to a position behind the exosapient, keeping his gun trained on the center of its thorax as he produced a pry bar from his own toolkit.

“Wh-what are y-you doing, C-Caine?” Trevor did not sound good at all.

“Conducting a psychological warfare experiment.” Keeping the handgun tight against the exosapient’s midriff, Caine ran the pry bar along the center of the alien’s life-support unit. Then again, slowly, softly from the bottom up to the top. Let’s see how you feel about having a hostile alien constantly tapping and bumping at your back.

There was no immediate reaction. Might be time to increase the implied threat from behind. On the next pass of the pry bar, Caine let it graze the rear edge of the helmet-dome.

The exosapient’s limbs flexed convulsively, released Trevor in its attempt to scrabble away along other, nearby wires.

But, anticipating that, Caine clung to the alien’s back. Avoiding the grabbing legs, he pulled himself forward until the top half of his visor was level with the alien’s helmet dome. He still couldn’t see anything inside; the material was too dark. No matter; obviously, the Arat Kur could see outward. Well enough, at least, to make out the ten-millimeter handgun that Caine laid against the helmet-dome. The alien’s movements became more frantic. Caine tapped the muzzle against the dome twice and then left it pointing directly inward. The alien’s movement ended abruptly; all six legs went limp. Caine smiled. It was nice to know that some concepts–such as a loaded gun–were capable of transcending even the barriers of species and language.

He looked over toward Trevor, who was making adjustments to his suit’s life-support unit. “What’s wrong?”

“Just setting the temperature a few degrees higher.”

Caine bound their prisoner with lengths of cable and wiring. Meanwhile, Trevor haltingly moved to hunch in front of what appeared to be the wreck’s central computer console.

“Anything interesting?”

“G-God, no. This writing looks l-like tortured s-spa-spaghetti trying to m-mate with cock-eyed d-d-dominoes. Be-besides, we don’t speak their language. That’s why-why I h-h-had to sa-save the little b-bastard. Whoev-ever he is.”

“An Arat Kur?” ventured Caine. “We’ve seen the Hkh’Rkh already, and the Ktor live in those big tanks on treads. And no other species seemed hostile at Convocation.”

“Arat Ku-Kur sounds r-right.”

Caine helped Trevor to drift away from the enemy ship’s bridge console. “So, we’ve caught an Arat Kur. Maybe. But whatever he is, you’re right: we have to find a way to communicate with him. Until we do, we can’t even dock this wreck with the Auxiliary Command module to pool the two vehicles’ resources. And without those combined resources, we’re just a pile of a junk heading into deep space.”

Caine stared past Trevor’s tremoring nod and trembling shoulder. The trussed exosapient was once again motionless. Maybe even smug. And perhaps it had a right to be. The alien might be their prisoner, but they were now hostages to its knowledge.