Trial By Fire – Snippet 26

Marvelous. Their prisoner now had to be recategorized as a mental patient. Trevor saw where that could lead. “Caine, if the alien is psychologically withdrawn, then we have to bring it back to reality.”

“I agree.”

“Then I repeat: nothing motivates as effectively as fear. Let’s not waste any time.”

“We still don’t know how he’ll react. We might force him deeper into withdrawal.”

Trevor looked at Caine from the corner of his eye. “Exactly how much more withdrawn do you expect he can get?” Trevor saw his retort hit home. Caine frowned, looked at the alien. Time to follow up, but gently; gently! “Caine, when we came back from the wreck, I was conscious enough to watch you try every form of communication that we know of to reach the Arat Kur: voice, written language, images, sound patterns, mathematics. But there’s been no response and we’re running out of time. We’ve studied the alien and have discovered some useful facts, but now we have to try other methods.”

After about five seconds, Caine asked quietly, “What do you propose?”

“We start with something passive, something that will work by eroding the exosapient’s will and self-composure. White noise, biased toward the ultrasonic range. We can rig the intercom to produce it. We may have to play with the sound characteristics a bit, since we don’t know what audial stimuli will create discomfort.”

Caine looked disgusted, but nodded. He did not look at Trevor as he launched himself toward the door. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

*   *   *

Trevor started with a decibel level that would have been subaudible to a human subject, using sound waves in the 18,000-30,000 cycles range. It might have made the average person a bit edgy, but no more.

They seemed equally ineffectual upon the Arat Kur. The room’s emergency snoopscope–a single fiber-optic pickup hidden between the modular ceiling plates–showed the Arat Kur still suspended in midair, unmoving and apparently unaware of its surroundings.

Trevor boosted the sound, but thirty minutes later, there was still no visible effect. Trevor checked his settings: a decibel level of 80 and a top sonic range of 40,000 cycles. The machinery was probably not capable of producing higher frequencies. Trevor let his eyes drift back to the decibel level indicator. Eighty was apparently not enough. Trevor depressed the control switch and held it down.

The numbers mounted steadily.

*   *   *

“I wonder–“

Trevor looked up; it was the first sound Caine had made in over an hour. Now, with almost no warning, he was already out of his acceleration couch, swimming around toward Trevor’s computer station. “Any activity?”

“Not so far.”

Riordan nodded, leaned over to study the alien’s black and white image. “Trevor, I think I know why we haven’t been having any luck with–” His words ended abruptly. Trevor looked over, knew what he’d see. Caine was staring at the decibel indicator.

Without a word, Caine picked up his helmet, swam out the exit, headed in the direction of the Arat Kur’s prison chamber. Trevor shook his head, killed the sound, and followed, his limbs still uncooperative and awkward.

*   *   *

It was a measure of how much Caine’s zero-gee facility had improved that he was already alongside the Arat Kur by the time Trevor arrived, handgun out.

“You won’t need it,” Caine said.


“Because the Arat Kur is either dying or comatose. I can’t tell which. Maybe both.”

Trevor edged closer. How could Caine tell if the creature was even more withdrawn than before? There was no change in its appearance.

Upon closer inspection, Trevor revised his assessment. The movement of the respiratory ducts was less pronounced, suggesting shallower breathing. However, the rate of respiration was increased, and there was a persistent tremor in the soft tissues. The only other change was in the hairs–no, the antennae–on the creature’s back: they had all disappeared.

Caine circled the alien slowly, inspecting every centimeter. When he got to the posterior, he leaned lower, inspected a previously unnoticed cloud of liquid globules. “This is probably the worst sign of all. I think it’s voided and has made no effort to move away from its own wastes. Pretty much a sure indicator that it has lost self-awareness or has impaired motor control.”

“All right, so the sound was a bad idea.”

“No. Just before I saw how high you pushed the sound, I was starting to think that the sound was simply pointless. I’m pretty sure that the audial stimuli didn’t do this.”

“Why not?” Trevor’s attention momentarily strayed from the laser-point he was painting on the Arat Kur’s belly.

“This creature is a burrower, so much of the sound made in its environment must persist as echoes. Consequently, its natural habitat is probably noisier than ours. So to hear an individual over any distance, an Arat Kur must be able to filter out background noise. Whether it achieves that filtering by mental discrimination or special anatomical structures is immaterial. What matters is that, evolutionarily, Arat Kur physiology and psychology must be able to tolerate audial distress and confusion.”

Trevor frowned. “Let’s say you’re right. Then how do you explain the catatonia and the–?”

But Caine hardly seemed to hear him. Riordan launched himself back into the corridor, where he scooped up two of the tethers he had used to tow the Arat Kur from the wreck. He somersaulted, kicked back into the room and set about trussing the alien with the longer tether. He tossed the other to Trevor. “Tie it on as a towline. Then keep your weapon on him.”

Trevor lashed, then tugged, the towline. “Taut. Where are we–?”

“Let’s go.” Caine wrapped the end of the towline around his wrist.

“Go where?”

“Life support.”

“Life support?” The words exploded out of Trevor before he could govern the dismay or the volume behind them. “Why?”

“Just a hunch. Play along, okay?”

“All right–for now. But at least tell me what you’re doing so that if something happens to you, I can try to finish the work.”

“Sure. Since the sound didn’t have any effect, I started reviewing all our assumptions about its behavior, its environment. And I returned to the possibility that, if the Arat Kur was not willfully withdrawn, it might be because it was already reacting to something negative in the environment, something we don’t notice but which they find so aversive that it paralyzes them.”

Trevor scowled. “Like what?”

“Space, open space. That’s the one greatest difference between a burrower’s environment and our own.”

“Damn–yes, of course. Agoraphobia. And the answer was in front of us the moment we boarded their ship: the narrow passageways, the low-ceilinged rooms.”

“And when I shot out the cockpit blister, even before it climbed onto you, the Arat Kur starting weakening, and then went rigid, like it was in shock. Or in this case, was immobilized by fear of the greatest open area of all: free space.”

“Without a tether.”

“Right. And when we brought him back here, what did we do? Put him in a high-ceilinged room. He was okay at first because the lights were out and he couldn’t see the spaces that cause his agoraphobia.”

Trevor nodded. “But then we came in and turned on the lights and left him behind. And here he is: wholly catatonic and withdrawn. So now we take him to life support to give him as crowded an environment as we can.”

“And we see what happens.”

“Sabotage, probably.”

“Can’t rule it out, but there are enough snoopscopes in life support to monitor his activity no matter where he goes. And the control room is only a few steps away.”

“I hope you don’t mind if I remain a little closer to our prisoner than that. Like on the other side of this door.” Trevor helped navigate the inert ovoid of the Arat Kur through the hatchway and toward the clutter at the heart of the life-support section.

“Suit yourself.”

The maze of machinery reached to within a meter of the ceiling, and had less than half a meter’s clearance above the floor. Other than a narrow walkway around the outer perimeter, there was no other space wide enough to permit easy passage. A human would have to thread sideways if he wanted to move between the tubes, tanks, and centrifuges.

Caine undid the tow line, and then the restraints. The Arat Kur floated motionless. Riordan pushed himself backward gently, floating out of the room at a leisurely pace. Laser aimpoint still painted on the alien’s belly, Trevor shoved off the deck with his foot and drifted backward. As he cleared the room, the heavy vacuum-rated door slid shut.

“Let’s hope it works,” Caine said.

Trevor nodded and thought, It had better. Because we’re running out of time. All of us.