Trial By Fire – Snippet 28

The Arat Kur seemed to be pleased, emitting a number of trilling whistles and bobbing up and down slightly.

Caine, smiling at the Arat Kur, said sideways to Trevor, “Well, so far, so good.”

“Sure. Marvelous. And now that we’re all such good friends, I’m sure we’ll want to launch straight into a major cross-cultural dialog.”

At that moment, another carrier tone intruded on their private line and a new voice cut in. “Yes, I believe such a discussion would be beneficial to us all.”

Trevor and Caine turned to look at the alien, who had finished working with the computer. Noting that he had their attention once again, the Arat Kur bobbed up and down once. Muffled by the creature’s suit, the whistles and trills resumed. As they did, the new voice spoke again over their radios.

“My apologies for omitting an introduction. I am Darzhee Kut.”

*   *   *

What the Arat Kur said next was even more improbable than his first calm interjection.

“I wish to apologize for meeting under these circumstances. I thank you for showing me trust despite the–unexpected attack which brought me here. Your deeds sound a high and noble melody for your race.”

Caine took a deep breath and answered. “Darzhee Kut, we must apologize also. We had no way of discerning that your personal intentions might be peaceful, after our first and unfortunate encounter in this room. And of course, you had no reason to think otherwise of us. We are most happy to meet you–and through you, come to finally learn something of your race.”

“These harmonize with my own feelings, but before we may do so, we must ensure our survival.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“The weapons-fire from the ship to which your module was originally attached sheared away all my sensors and disabled my communication equipment. I would have pulsed my engines to attract attention but, being unable to enter the engineering relay room, I was unable to effect repairs to those systems. Therefore, may I inquire: do you have an intact communication system? For if you do, we could use it to summon a rescue.”

Trevor shook his head. “Not so fast. You’re expecting us to surrender to you? Even though we’ve got the gun?”

“I expect no such thing. Surrenders, and the accepting of them, are actions undertaken by what you call ‘soldiers,’ are they not?”

Caine leaned forward. “Darzhee Kut, do you mean to imply that you are not a member of your species’ military forces?”

“Not as you would mean it. Moreover, the word military does not completely harmonize with any of ours.”

Caine frowned. “This is an unusual concept for us. Before we agree to communications with your fleet, it would help for us to understand a little more about you and your species. Specifically, do you mean to say that you have no ‘military’ forces?”

Darzhee Kut buzzed lightly. “This is not quite correctly said. We have military forces when we require them, but we have no caste which specializes in conflict, particularly not in physical combat. When the nest is compelled to defend itself, we all aid it according to our best abilities and the nest’s greatest needs.”

“So your race never fought wars?”

“Long ago. But they were too destructive, and so we ceased.”

These were hardly the kind of attackers Trevor had expected. “What made your wars so destructive: the weapons? Nuclear warheads? Gas?”

“No,” said Caine, nodding, “the bodies.”

Darzhee warbled a bit before he answered. “You have sung our sad refrain without having heard it before: this is well. Indeed, the bodies. With no way to dispose of them quickly enough, disease and carrion-creatures became a worse scourge than the war itself.”

“So what did you do to stop further wars?”

“Does one need to forbid one’s own suicide? We did not need to ‘do’ anything but see what was before our eyes: to wage war upon others was, ultimately, to kill oneself and one’s nest.”

“With all due respect, then why did you make war upon us?”

Darzhee Kut made a sound like a falling trill. “Ah. This is a far more complicated matter. But I would say this: let your own history be your answer. Your behavior toward each other told us something of how we must conceive of behaving toward you.”

Caine frowned. “But we do not always make war–unlike the Hkh’Rkh who seem to be your allies.”

“And this was the great atonality in the chorus of this generation. Some of us sang the triumphs of your species’ dreams of lasting peace. Others boomed the dirge of your many wars.”

“And the dirge was the tune your race chose to focus upon?”

“Let us rather say that it drowned out the more hopeful song that I and others sang.” His front claws gestured at the walls and beyond. “And here we are, trapped in a growing crescendo that brushes aside all other melodies, tones, sounds. Such is war, it seems to me. Too much of even one’s own sounds, when made in time to war-drums, becomes chaos. It afflicts us with a temporary version of the perpetual sun-time that–it is said–afflicts your species.”


Darzhee Kut seemed to relax, raised one claw in a gesture that looked partly like the invitation of a raconteur, partly like the still, upraised finger of a didact. “To understand sun-time you must understand my race. Specifically, its reproductory habits.”

Trevor felt himself wince.

If Darzhee Kut noticed, he gave no external indication of it. “We are creatures of the earth, the rock, of close chambers that embrace us, of tunnels that caress our bellies and backs. But when the song of our birth-triad fills our hearts and quickens our blood to that point where we must sing as one in all ways, we suddenly long for a sensation which, the rest of the time, terrifies us.”

“You return to the surface, to see the sun.”

“Your voice sings true. It is just so. The rays of heat, the great brightness, the open vault above: so expansive is our passion, that, at this one time, the wide world above the rock harmonizes with what is most immediate and true in us. And so this is where we mate.”

Trevor leaned back. “And that–that ‘state of mind’ is a bad thing?” Not that I want to hear more about your orgasmic nature-walks.

“It is not bad, but it is necessarily brief.”

Caine was nodding again. “Because it’s also dangerous. You’re vulnerable on the surface, and what brings you there is an altered state of mind which compromises your self-control.”

Darzhee Kut was still for a moment. “You hear the harmonies of the Arat Kur far in advance, Spokesperson Riordan. It was our great misfortune that we did not share them with you at the Convocation.”

Trevor glanced over at Caine, who clearly had not made the connection yet, and pointed at the Arat Kur. “I’ve heard your name before. You were, were–”

Darzhee Kut’s sensors declined lightly. “I was to be the Speaker-to-Nestless for the Arat Kur Wholenest at the Convocation. It was so announced on the first day. But Zirsoo was thought more–capable.”

Caine’s eyes narrowed. “By whom?”

“By both Zirsoo Kh’n and First Delegate Hu’urs Khraam.”

“And let me guess. They were both great singers of the dirge that is humanity.”

“Among its very loudest and most accomplished soloists. So now you begin to see.”

“Possibly. It sounds as though there was much division among the Arat Kur regarding how best to interact with humanity.”

“Yes. Among those who knew enough.”

“And what knowledge was withheld from those who did not ‘know enough’?”

“Some of the answer to that question is composed of notes which I may not sing. And that imposition of silence made me question how effective I could be as the Speaker to your race.”

Trevor frowned. “So you’re not a soldier at all. You’re a–a diplomat.”

“This might be the best word for it. I would suggest ‘official liaison,’ for I have no power to propose or conclude agreements with other species or states. That is the role of a Delegate.”

Caine put out an entreating hand. “Then please forgive us for holding you prisoner. It was a consequence of our ignorance of your language, and your ways. Allow us to extend to you the courtesies and privileges of a diplomatic attaché. However, we must impose certain limits upon these, since our governments are currently at war.”

Again, the scrunch-bow of the Arat Kur. “I graciously accept, and extend the same to you. And because of this, may I further suggest that we signal my fleet directly, so that they may extend a more suitable and complete measure of hospitality to you?”

Trevor frowned. “You mean, take us prisoners.”

“Mr. Corcoran, I see no uniform, so I presume that, as was true at the Convocation, you are either off-duty or discharged from military service?”


“Then your last status so far as I am concerned is as the military expert of your species’ diplomatic delegation to the Convocation. Therefore, it would be incorrect and illegal to hold you prisoner. You, too, are entitled to diplomatic status.”

Well, this Darzhee Kut may be an overgrown cockroach–but he’s a damn mannerly one. Trevor looked at Caine. “What do you think?”

“I think making a contact which just might allow us to curtail bloodshed is a whole hell of a lot better than simultaneously dying of rads, asphyxiation, thirst, and starvation.”

“Okay. And Darzhee Kut, I want to apologize for what happened regarding your craft,” Trevor said.

“It was war. Sadly, that is explanation enough.”

“It’s a little worse than that. We are concerned that you saw our diplomatic transponder code and thought it safe to approach.”

“This is so. But tell me, was this incorrect signal a mistake, or a ruse?”

“A mistake.”

“Then you shall not be held accountable for it. We need discuss it no further. Shall we summon my rock-siblings?”

Caine nodded, handed him his collarcom. “With this, you can control our communications array with verbal commands. Tell me when you are ready to send your message.”

Darzhee Kut accepted the delicate silver device in two careful claws, turned away to begin composing a message.

“Darzhee Kut,” Caine asked, “may I interrupt?”


“Will we be traveling with your fleet?”


“So can you tell us where we are going next?”

“I can.” He turned. “We are going home.”

“To Sigma Draconis.”

“My apologies: I was not clear. We are not going to my home. We are going to yours.” His eyes seemed to lower, almost as if he were embarrassed. “We are going to Earth.”