Trial By Fire – Snippet 29

Chapter Fourteen

Arat Kur flagship Greatvein, Barnard’s Star

“With your return, the rocknest is made whole again, Darzhee Kut.”

Darzhee Kut made the customary response. “In returning to its harmonies, I live again.”

His rock-sibling Urzueth Ragh extended his sensory polyps in unrestrained joy. “We all feared to soon sing your dirge. But since your rescue, some have hummed haunting notes of the lay of your life among the humans. Was it as terrible as we feared?”

“It was not as I expected it to be. I was alone for days before–”

“So it is true. Your crew, Rzzekh and Iistrur, sing no more.”

“They sing no more. So when the humans came, it was a strange sensation.”


“I feared them, prepared for them–”

“Trapped them, I heard.”

“As our forebears did their prey and foes, yes. But I was also relieved when they arrived. I had been without association for so long.”

“I understand.”

“You do not. It became worse. When they took me prisoner, they set me off by myself.”

“They left you alone? Alone? For how long?”

“I do not know. Many hours.”

“And you can still harmonize? You are hewn from strong rock, Darzhee Kut.”

“This ability is a prerequisite for those of us in the Ee’ar caste who would explore new places or associations. In contacting other species, we might spend time in isolation.”

“I do not envy you the tunnel you dig, rock-sibling. Did they understand what they were doing to you?”

“No. The humans eventually apologized, but only for putting me in a large, high, empty room. This leads me to believe that they thought it was agoraphobia alone which caused my reaction.”

“So they did not understand how dangerous it was to isolate you?”

“How could they? As a species, they often seek solitude, and much prefer to shun enemies rather than have their company.”

“And they did not understand that it was their attempt to communicate–to associate–with you that enabled you to hear the music of life once again?”

“No, they did not see this, for they are not gregarious creatures. They would perceive our need for association as excessive, even crippling. They would never conceive of needing company so profoundly that one must seek out an adversary, rather than die into the silence of oneself alone.”

“They are strange creatures.”

“They are unlike us in this way.”

“As more of our rock-siblings are finding out, even now.”

“Sing me this new melody. Have we discovered more humans in this system?”

“No. Our advance flotilla is even now in the home-system of the humans, securing their largest gas giant for our refueling purposes. We shall follow presently.”

They had arrived at the narrow entry into the meeting module that had been crafted especially for roof-sharings with the Hkh’Rkh. The great predators could barely fit through the corridors of the Arat Kur vessels, and the Hkh’Rkh vessels were so crude and uncomfortable that the Arat Kur had found that they could not concentrate properly when aboard them. So this was the point of contact between their worlds of radically different physical–and cultural–shape.

“It is a vast and unpleasant place.” Urzueth ground his dental plates together as he tilted upward to glance at the ceiling that was too distant for his comfort, and too close for the Hkh’Rkhs’.

Darzhee rubbed his plates together for sake of harmonizing, but felt little of the other’s distress. After his hours in the human ship, he had grown accustomed to the wide spaces. “Let us take our places; the others will be here soon.”

As they slid into their belly-cupping couches, Urzueth stared at the tall and monstrous Hkh’Rkh chairs. “I would just as soon be elsewhere, rock-sibling.”

“I understand.”

“Then why am I here?”

“If it should come to pass that my voice is stilled by events, then as the First Delegate’s chief administrator, you must be ready to finish my song for me.”

Urzueth fretted his claws against each other with a series of rapid clicks. “These are random notes you emit, Darzhee. Now that you are back in the rocknest, what could happen to you?”

“Anything, rock-sibling. War is a sun-time that blinds whole races. Nothing is beyond possibility. And I think the humans will surprise us.”

“Why? Our technological advantage is not merely profound, but overwhelmingly decisive. And they were clearly not expecting an attack. They suffered a great defeat, in this system.”

“Yes, but they are better warriors.”

“When they are at very close ranges, perhaps–”

“No. It goes beyond that simple refrain with which we have reassured ourselves. We think the Hkh’Rkh great fighters because they are large and fierce, but the humans have a more dangerous trait.”

“Which is?”

“They are innovative. They can change their ideas very rapidly when pursuing a goal, if they must.”

“They are irresolute.”

“No. That is how you of the Hur caste see them, and possibly why you feel so confident embarking upon this war. But what you see in the humans as a lack of resolve is in fact the presence of immense flexibility. They may not be as daunting as the Hkh’Rkh, but they can adapt better to sudden changes–and war, my rock-sibling, is nothing but one sudden change after another.”

“Your melody grows strange and atonal, Darzhee Kut. Do not make me anxious.”

“I apologize, rock-sibling. But I learned much from my time with them. Including my long roof-sharing with their Spokesperson, earlier today.”

Urzueth whistled. “This is the one named Caine Riordan, yes? He is the one from the Convocation, the one with whom you had hoped to speak?”

“Yes. His arrival is a great good fortune for us.”

“True. Now we have an emissary to bear our demands to the human leaders.”

“He is far more than that.” Darzhee paused, decided to trust Urzueth. “He is also one who might understand why we broke the Accords. Understand and not judge.”

“This does not harmonize. We cannot reveal this. To humans least of all.”

“My thoughts are a counterpoint in major. We must reveal this truth to those with whom we would negotiate, and eventually, to all humans. The song I have been forbidden to sing is not known to them. They have forgotten those deeds, I tell you. They do not know who they were, those many millennia ago. And they are those creatures no longer.”

“Do not believe that last hopeful coda, rock-sibling,” Urzueth demurred. “Their perfidies were not the product of sophisticated misthinkings, but arose from their very nature, were built into their genetics by their particular journey of evolution. They cannot help but ever and again become what they truly are.”

“So we are nothing but our genetics? We are the puppets of our past, encoded as the chemicals within us?”

“Darzhee Kut, you are my rock-sibling and in almost all things, our harmonies make the highest roof stones ring. But in this we cannot find the same key.”

“But the safety of these two humans–”

“Fear not. As the First Delegate’s immediate assistant, I may assure you, that, even over the objections of the Hkh’Rkh, he has resolved that the two humans will be well and carefully treated.”

Darzhee kept his voice low. “He may find the Hkh’Rkh insistent that they be executed.”

“It will not happen. Hu’urs Khraam has committed to this.”

First Delegate Hu’urs Khraam, coming through the hatch from the Hkh’Rkh shuttle that had mated to the meeting module, stopped, ran his eyes across the two much younger Arat Kur, who dipped their chins low. “I hear ghost-songs–or I heard my name,” he fluted.

“Invoked in the speculation that it was you who approached, esteemed High First Delegate.”

Hu’urs Khraam ignored Urzueth and his rhetorical flourish, stared steadily at Darzhee Kut before turning to his rear and motioning for those behind him to enter the module.

The thumping treads of Hkh’Rkh became audible, drew closer. Two full seconds before his impressive bulk actually arrived in the module, the shadow of First Voice of the First Family stretched into it like a dark herald. He nodded–barely–to First Delegate Khraam, who, like him, had overall authority for the gathered forces of his species.

Hu’urs Khraam spread his claws wide and toward the ceiling. “Our operations in this system are at an end. The surviving human ships, those that kept their distance during the engagement of the fleets, are still fleeing out toward the Kuiper belt. Several highly autonomous drones remain in pursuit, but I am informed that they are unlikely to catch the human craft.”

“The humans are cowards.” The phlegm bubbled in First Fist Graagkhruud’s long slothlike snout as he said it, stimulating a low rumble of concurrence from the rest of First Voice’s hulking retinue.

“With respect, First Fist, the humans were prudent.” Hu’urs Khraam lowered his claws. “They attempted to draw us into pursuit, which would have deterred us from shifting to Earth as swiftly as we might. They understood the importance of buying more time for their shift-hull, the Prometheus, in the hope it might finish its preacceleration and reach Earth before we do. Only because we resolutely declined to take their bait, is that hope now groundless.”

Graagkhruud’s small round eyes protruded slightly from either side of his long, smooth, neck-tapering head. “Several of the masters of my ships once again request to remain behind, to give chase and harry them. And afterward, to keep a presence in this system.”