Trial By Fire – Snippet 27

Chapter Thirteen

Adrift off Barnard’s Star 2 C


White lights. Modular bulkheads. His limbs heavy with exhaustion and the dense materials comprising an emergency suit. And everywhere, the dissolving image of Opal’s face, like a shadow dispelled by a sudden ray of light, or a faint aroma dispersed by a breeze. Trevor swam up out of his dream, felt the door against his back, checked it: still closed.

Caine’s voice was back in his helmet. “Are you awake?”

“I–uh, yeah, yes.” And dreaming of the woman you’ve been sleeping with. The guilt sent a throb into his head.

“There’s movement in life support.”

“What kind of movement?” Trevor asked warily.

“About an hour ago, some motion started in the Arat Kur’s limbs and front claws. Just a minute ago, it scooted under the filtration intakes and the osmotic scrubbers.”

“How are his zero-gee skills?”

“Pretty fair. Better than mine. His respiration seems to have resumed a normal rate.”

Well, the Arat Kur was either recovering from his catatonic withdrawal or readying himself for an orgy of sabotage and destruction. Trevor thumbed the handgun’s safety to the off position. “Do I go in?”

“Not yet. I’ll relay live feed to your HUD.”

A black and white image flickered on about two inches above and away from Trevor’s left eye. The creature seemed to be simply surveying its surroundings. It was moving slowly through the maze of life-support equipment, occasionally stopping to study a component here, a readout there.

It completed its tour directly in front of the sealed door. It approached the door, inspected it thoroughly and then sat/laid down directly in front of it. Trevor activated the laser aimpoint on the handgun, commented, “I’m ready for him.”

Caine did not answer immediately. “I don’t think he intends any threat. In fact, I think–”

Over the carrier tone in the communication system, Trevor heard a series of atonal whistles, clicks, and buzzes. “What was that? Are we losing communications?”

“No, we’re gaining communications. That was the Arat Kur.”

“Singing for its supper?”

“Maybe, maybe not. I–” More whines, clacks and fluttering whistles. “I’d say he’s interested in making contact, now.”

“Probably wants to know where the plumbing is.”

“Yeah, well I really don’t care what he wants to talk about. I just care that he wants to talk.”

Trevor heard a change in the comm channel’s carrier tone; Caine’s voice was now in stereo, half coming from Trevor’s collar communicator, the other half emerging muffled and muted from the intercom behind the door into life support. “Hello. Can you understand this language?”

A wild mélange of whistles, squeals, and grunts answered.

Trevor sighed. “Does that mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”

“Damned if I know.”

“Sounds like a dolphin playing a bagpipe filled with rocks.”

More squawking, but slower and repetitive. The Arat scuttled forward and pushed its nose against the door. Trevor heard–and felt–the thump behind him. He raised his handgun. “I have the door covered.”

“He’s not trying to escape.”

“Oh? Then what’s he doing? Trying to scratch his back against the door jamb?”

“No, but it’s not ramming the door. It’s simply approaching it, bumping it, and then backing off again. No running starts, no attempts to pry it open. It just wants out.”

“What a surprise.”

There was no answer.


Another moment of silence, and then Caine’s voice answered–but not over the radio. He reappeared in the corridor, heading for the door Trevor was covering with the ten-millimeter. “I’m going in. Cover me.”

“What? Wait a–”

Caine pressed the control stud on the wall; the door slid back. Just fucking great. Trevor brought up the gun quickly. The Arat Kur scuttled backwards about a meter and then stopped. Caine stretched out his empty hands. The Arat Kur’s front claws scissored the air once: a nervous, twitchy motion.

“It could be preparing to attack,” muttered Trevor.

“It could be the Arat Kur equivalent of wringing its hands,” Caine muttered back. He took a floating step into the room.

The Arat Kur retreated about the same distance, then edged back toward Caine.

“Seems friendly,” said Caine.

“Or hungry.”

The Arat Kur “sat” down and launched into a long series of repetitive squawks, wheezings, and whispers.

Trevor listened. “What do you figure it’s saying?”

“Probably trying to do the same thing I did. Keep repeating basic phrases again and again, hoping that we’ll hear something we recognize.”

“And when he realizes that’s pointless? Then what?”

The alien stopped cacophonizing abruptly. Trevor tightened his grip on the handgun. The Arat Kur’s front claw began rising slowly, carefully. It stopped when it was pointing at the open door. Then the arm bent until the claw was pointing at the Arat Kur. Then back out the door.

“He’s asking to leave the room,” murmured Caine. “Politely.”

“Right. So he can kill us. Politely.”

“No, I don’t think that’s what he has in mind. We’ve got to take a chance and let him out.”

Madness, complete madness. But Trevor pushed against the deck with his left toe and drifted slowly to the right, leaving the doorway unobstructed.

The alien went through its pointing sequence again: the door, itself, the door. Caine pointed at the Arat Kur and out the door, ending with an exaggerated nod. The alien rose up, its claws outstretched. With a single coordinated kick from all four rear legs, it launched forward.

And out the door. Caine somersaulted and swam after it. Trevor did his best to match their pace, but, still unable to use his left arm, lost sight of Caine as he entered the inter-deck access tube.

“Caine, slow down. I can’t keep up. I can’t help you if that little bastard turns on you.”

Caine either didn’t hear or didn’t care. “He’s heading back for his first prison.”

“What the hell for?”

“Damned if I know. Just keep following me.” A pause, then. “Turn around. Return to the upper deck.” Which meant that Trevor had to back himself up the inter-deck access tube; there wasn’t enough room to turn around.

“Go back? What the hell for?”

“To make room for our guest.”

At the bottom of the tube, Trevor saw motion. The Arat Kur had reentered the tube, carrying a bulky load. He was starting to swim up. Straight toward Trevor.

As Trevor reverse-pushed awkwardly up the tube, the Arat Kur seemed to take notice of him and slow down. There was almost a sense of patient waiting. If the alien had had thumbs, Trevor would have expected to see the Arat Kur twiddling them.

Once the way was clear, the Arat Kur shot up and out the tube, giving Trevor a better look at the bundle it had retrieved from its first prison: its spacesuit. Caine came sidewinding up after the alien.

“Grab your helmet. I think we’re going EVA.”

“Caine, with our current whole body dose, this is probably the last time we’re going to be able to take a stroll around the neighborhood.”

“I know it, but what choice do we really have?”

Trevor sighed. “I’ll suit up.” He did, and just in time. A few seconds after establishing a seal, the alien led them into the airlock. It pointed to the outer door, itself, each of them, and then back at the outer door. Caine cycled the airlock and opened the door.

Obviously, the alien had not been unconscious during its trip over to the command module. It swam outside and directly toward the boarding tether. After securing itself to the line with its own suit lanyard, it began towing itself back over to its wrecked ship.

Caine’s skill and Trevor’s condition had both improved enough that they made a fast transit and a good jump down to the wreck. The Arat Kur, its front legs waving in something that looked very much like glad excitation, lead them inside the wreck and directly to the door surrounded by scorch marks. It grasped the door “knob,” moored itself by grasping a handle protruding from the wall, and tugged. Then it stopped and looked at the two humans. Still looking at them, it mimicked the tug again.

Caine took hold of another handle. “I think we’re supposed to lend a hand here.”

“Or a claw.”

“Just pull.”

After a few coordinated heaves, the door opened a crack, allowing the humans to finish the job with their pry bars. As soon as the way was clear, the Arat Kur darted in, almost disappearing into a dense thicket of burnt circuitry and warped cables. Trevor peered–and aimed–over Caine’s shoulder to watch the alien’s speedy rerouting work. Caine nodded toward the ruined rainforest of wiring. “What do you think? His engineering section?”

Trevor nodded. “Probably had multiple short-outs when the ship was hit. Just like the cutter did. It’s also why he couldn’t use his engines or restart his power plant: he couldn’t get in to reroute the command circuitry or power supplies.”

Apparently finished, the Arat Kur turned, dove back into the corridor and motioned toward the bridge. Once the humans had followed him into that new location, the alien pointed at what they had conjectured was the main computer, itself, and then the computer again. Trevor and Caine exchanged resigned looks, and then nodded at the Arat Kur in unison.

The alien slid into its acceleration couch, powered up the computer and began manipulating a set of touch screens with extraordinary speed. The deck began to vibrate faintly. A moment later, large metal panels sealed off the shattered cockpit blister and the tumbling star field beyond. A gentle hiss indicated that the chamber was repressurizing.

A few more taps on the touchscreen and the bridge lit up, ringing the humans in holographic displays and dynamically reconfigurable control panels. About half of them were dark or malfunctioning, but that did not seem to impede the Arat Kur. Trevor felt a new vibration through the soles of his feet and simultaneously watched half of the orange lights on the control panels change to green. Evidently, the power plant was online. A moment later, he felt a sideways tug: thrust. The Arat Kur was starting to correct the wreck’s tumble.

Whether it was a matter of fine piloting or extraordinarily powerful computing technology, the alien successfully stabilized and mated the wreckage of his ship with the Auxiliary Command module in less than ten minutes. Then he pointed to a hologram of the space near The Pearl. He zoomed in. At the extreme edge of the field of view was a red mote. He pointed at the mote and then swept his arm in a wide circle, indicating the craft they were in. Caine did the same and nodded.