Trial By Fire – Snippet 24

Chapter Twelve

Adrift off Barnard’s Star 2 C

Caine’s voice startled Trevor out of his daze. “You feeling any better?”

“Sure. Fine.” Trevor clenched his torso against the shiver that coursed through him.

Caine frowned. “Even though your temp and pulse are back to normal, you’re still cold from shock and exhibiting impaired movement, particularly in the left arm.”

“You done, doc?”

Caine leaned back. “I’m just trying to help.”

And that is of course true, and I’m just pissed that I had to depend on a rookie to get back here to our module. That impairment had made for an interesting return from the alien wreck: semiconscious EVA veteran Trevor Corcoran riding piggyback on EVA neophyte Caine Riordan for more than a minute. If my old SEAL instructor Stosh had seen it, I’d never hear the end of it.

Fortunately, what Riordan lacked in training and experience, he had made up for in common sense. Or so it seemed to Trevor, who closed his eyes and tried to recall what had happened after he had started to mumble and stumble on the Arat Kur ship. He vaguely remembered Riordan linking several tethers and reeling the exosapient across the gap between the wrecks after he and Trevor were secure on the module: a suitably undignified transit for the murderous overgrown cockroach.

After cycling through the airlock, he recalled Caine removing his spacesuit and examining him, talking as he went. “Trevor, I want you to hear what I’m seeing, so you can tell me how best to help you. Minor burn marks on the right palm, apparently where the current entered. Seems like the suit’s anticonductivity layer helped considerably. Your fine motor control still seems poor. Are your ears still ringing?” Trevor seemed to recall nodding, or maybe he had just intended to do so.

In the three minutes it took Caine to conduct his layman’s examination, Trevor had felt himself relapsing into shock. Caine hustled him back into his emergency suit, set the internal temperature to twenty-five degrees centigrade, and threatened mutiny if his superior officer attempted anything more strenuous than closing his eyelids.

Which Trevor may have done for a while; he wasn’t sure. However, his next memory was of Caine dragging the alien–still by the tow line and none-too-gently–down to the lower level of the module, the ponderous creature floating lightly through zero-gee like an improbable, lopsided balloon on an industrial-strength string. After sealing the presumed Arat Kur in one of the deactivated rooms, he had returned to the control room and instructed the computer to restore minimal environmental functions in the makeshift prison cell: heat, air, and light.

Meanwhile, Trevor had slipped back into the doze-daze from which Caine had now just solicitously roused him. And for which Trevor’s expression of gratitude had been a facetious jibe about his amateur doctoring. Trevor sought a conversational olive branch: “You’re getting better at your zero-gee turns. A little awkward yet, but that will come with time. How’s our pal?”

“Some pal. He’s all right I guess, but who can really tell? He just lays–well, floats–there.”

“Which is a bit of a problem, since getting him was only step one. Now we’ve got to correct the ship’s two-axis tumble. Also, we took too many rads today. We’ve got to reach some shielding soon or we’re cooked. So we’re going to need to learn how to communicate with our pal pronto. Fortunately, I think we’re off to a good start. Your one message to him so far got through loud and clear.”

“You mean ‘stop being troublesome or I shoot’? That got through because it was simple and universal.”

“I disagree. It got through because the alien was motivated–highly motivated–to understand it.” Trevor removed his helmet, ran a gloved hand through his hair. “I think we have to maintain that level of motivation if we’re going to get anywhere.”

“If you’re wrong, however, then all we’re going to do is widen the current rift between us.”

Trevor shrugged. “If the creature has genuine cause to believe that it will die unless it cooperates, then it will be sure to find a way to bridge that rift.”

Caine frowned. “That assumption is predicated upon human behavior patterns.”

“So? What else do we have to work with? We have to proceed from a known commonality–self preservational instincts–and aggressively exploit that.”

Caine shook his head. “I don’t think it’s going to be that simple. Even if we use intimidation, and I’m not ready to, fear won’t work unless it’s placed within a meaningful context.”

Trevor stopped in the middle of removing a glove. “What do you mean, ‘context’?”

“Let’s say we employ threat and it works. The alien is scared. Scared for its life. Then what? How do we tell it what we want? We still have a critical gap in communication. It doesn’t know what it must do to alleviate the negative stimuli. More specifically, it doesn’t know how to communicate its intention to cooperate, because it doesn’t even know our words or gestures of propitiation.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“I suggest we try to learn more about our prisoner.”

“And how are we going to learn more about a creature that won’t, or can’t, talk with us?”

“Let’s start with the basics: physiology. What you said about their ship architecture also holds true for living things, too: form follows function. Maybe a detailed look at what we suspect to be an Arat Kur body will give us some insights into the species’ psychology.”

“Maybe. Maybe it will simply give the bastard another opportunity to attack us.”

“I doubt it,” Caine disagreed. “We still have the gun, and it’s displayed a thorough understanding of what that means.”

“Yes, but perhaps it’s had time to formulate a new strategy. Suicide, for instance.”

“Trevor, if the Arat Kur wants to commit suicide, then we’re done for. Neither positive nor negative stimuli will compel it to cooperate.”

“That’s not necessarily true.” Trevor chose his next words carefully; he was sure that the idea behind them would not be popular. “Negative stimuli can produce results even when a subject wishes to die.”

Caine looked up. “Trevor, are you talking about torture?”

Trevor tried to find the carefully oblique phrases that were the stock-in-trade of official milspeak, gave up. “Yes, torture. If necessary.”

Caine shook his head. “Trevor, leaving ethics aside for a moment, let’s recall our intel and survival objective: that the alien communicates with us. Sure, if you use pain, you might make him talk. Or, on the other hand, because the alien’s psychology and physiology cause it to have radically different reactions, it might clam up for good. Then instead of having the possibility of getting answers, we find ourselves facing the certainty of death.” Caine stared straight into Trevor’s eyes. “Besides, we might owe him.”

“We owe him? What and why in hell do we owe him anything?”

Caine maintained his unblinking stare. “How did his ship get nailed?”

“Hazawa’s PDF laser. Damn good shooting.”

“No argument. But why did this particular exosapient even come into range of that weapon? Why did Hazawa even have a chance to shoot at him?”

“He–” Oh Christ. “All right, we were running a diplomatic beacon: a white flag. It was wrong, but it was also a mistake. On the other hand, these bastards have invaded our territory and, judging from yesterday’s results, killed a shitload of our brothers and sisters in arms. That wasn’t a mistake. It was coldblooded murder. This little shit is a soldier. He’s earned whatever he gets.”

“How do you know he’s a soldier?”


“What if this Arat Kur is not a soldier? Remember what you said about his craft: not much like a military design. Maybe that’s because it isn’t part of their military. In which case, maybe he isn’t, either. In that case, we’d be torturing an Arat Kur civilian, possibly to death, whom we ambushed while showing a white flag.”

Trevor closed his eyes. The ethical issues had become even more murky than his vision and more uncertain than his balance. “Okay, then what do you suggest we do?”

“We suit up to go below and meet our prisoner.”

*   *   *

Trevor saw Caine’s feet disappear into the access way leading to their module’s lower deck. Ironically, Riordan was now better moving in zero-gee than Trevor, who bumped awkwardly along after him, left arm dragging and his legs twitching at inopportune moments. Trevor swam through a gauntlet of orange emergency lights to catch up with Caine at the Arat Kur’s prison cell and produced the handgun. Caine nodded, overrode the lock on the door, and pushed himself forward–into darkness.

“Damn it. I meant to turn the lights on in here.” Caine’s helmet lights winked on, played quickly about the room.