Trial By Fire – Snippet 32

“So it is a hostage.”

“In a manner of speaking. We have no wish to take living hostages.”

“Just a monetarily valuable one.”

“Yes, to say nothing of its being unprotected. It is a veritable gift for us and for the megacorporations we shall appoint as our partners and indigenous overseers.”

Riordan’s look of relaxed interest in the conversation seemed to fall away momentarily. His eyes opened slightly wider, his lips parted. Then, as fast as it was present, the expression was gone.

Darzhee Kut stopped the recording. “I could not read Riordan’s last change in facial expression. I have insufficient experience with humans.” Because the Hur caste’s elders would not let me study more than a few of their most harmless visual broadcasts. “So I put this recording before those who might have more insight than I. I ask you, therefore, what did that look signify? Surprise, or something else?”

No comments. He turned to Yaargraukh. “Is it true that you spent considerable time with this human?”

Yaargraukh nodded, still staring at the screen. “I know him.”

“Then tell me, what is this? Surprise?”

“Yes, surprise. But also comprehension.”

“What? I do not understand.”

Yaargraukh aimed a single calar digit at the frozen image. “He has realized something, and tried not to reveal that he was surprised–and that it was you who gave him useful information.”

“But even if that is true, why should Riordan conceal his surprise? He must know we will not release him until after the invasion is complete and the beachhead is secure.”


“So then why conceal his realization, his reactions? What does he hope to achieve?”

“I do not know. Perhaps it is merely habit.”

“But you think not.”

“I think not.”

“Can we trust him?”

Yaargraukh opened his mouth–

But Graagkhruud spoke first. “Clearly not. At the Convocation, he was the one who attempted to lure Yaargraukh himself into a trap, into a module that ‘malfunctioned’ and exposed them both to vacuum.”

Yaargraukh raised a claw to interject, his black eyes retracting somewhat–

–and Darzhee Kut knew the clarification the Advocate was about to offer: that Riordan himself had almost been killed by the “malfunction.” Every account of the incident made it clear that Riordan had not been aware, let alone the architect, of that assassination attempt. More likely, he had been the actual target.

But First Fist had no interest in allowing Yaargraukh to make that distinction. He spoke too swiftly and loudly to be interrupted. “And now, most recently, while traveling under a diplomatic transponder, Riordan fired upon your ship. It was a cowardly and duplicitous ruse. He and Corcoran should have been executed the moment they came aboard.”

Darzhee Kut averted his eyes. “As I reported, their explanation of the particulars of the incident involving the diplomatic transponder signal has satisfied us all.” Hu’urs Khraam bobbed once.

First Voice’s crest rose slightly. “It does not satisfy me, nor do their convenient ‘retirements’ from being warriors.”

Yaargraukh’s neck swiveled deferentially. “It does sound odd. Yet, I know this Riordan. He is an honorable being.”

Graagkhruud’s retort was instantaneous. “He is a being only insofar as he makes noises like language.”

Darzhee Kut saw Yaargraukh’s earflaps shiver as though they were going to close. Among the Hkh’Rkh, this reflex meant that he had heard something which was embarrassing, uncouth, or disgusting, and had just barely managed to suppress a more dramatic display of that repugnance. It was probably in reaction to his superior’s blunt bigotry. A bigotry which, by extension, would also tend to categorize the Arat Kur and all other non-Hkh’Rkh races as beings. Fine allies, indeed.

But Graagkhruud was not finished. “And honorable? This Riordan creature lied when he hid behind the safety of a diplomatic flag and then attacked.” Graagkhruud reared up. “But a lie does always reveal one truth: that he who tells it is a liar.”

“If we know it to be a lie, yes,” countered Darzhee Kut. “But we do not know this. Besides, Riordan is not a warfighter; that is his companion’s skill.”

First Voice intervened. “You err, Speaker Kut. I have heard Riordan speak, have learned something of his deeds and how he thinks. He is more a warrior-human than most of those who wear the uniforms of that caste. And your own report indicated that it was him, not the true warrior, who carried a weapon when they boarded your disabled ship.”

Yaargraukh’s voice was quiet but so slow and measured that it attracted more attention than a shout. “Still, I find no fault in this person’s honor.” Darzhee Kut leaned back, as did the other Hkh’Rkh. In his own tongue, Yaargraukh had not used the word “being,” the Hkhi term for most exosapients, who, although intelligent, had no place in the honor code hierarchies which determined personhood. Rather, Yaargraukh had used the word “person,” which not only implied a sapient recognized as having a mind equal to their own, but as a creature capable of accruing honor.

“The Advocate blasphemes–or betrays us.” Graagkhruud breathed, his crest rising. “I cannot tell which.”

Darzhee Kut closed his eyes against the strain upon his patience. “This cannot, and need not, be settled here. Caine Riordan is a senior emissary of his people, and he is our guest, not our prisoner. We would, however, be pleased and grateful if you were to leave some of your warriors with us to provide security for the humans while they are on our ship.”

“I was not aware that those who are truly and genuinely guests need to be chaperoned and monitored by armed guards. Perhaps you, too, feel them to be something other than guests. Something more akin to prisoners.” First Fist let his breath out through his nose, the mucus therein warbling and fluttering grotesquely.

Darzhee Kut let his eye covers slide shut for a moment. Harmonize with the greater purpose. Embrace the differences of the Old Family Hkh’Rkh–at least in this moment. “Honorable Graagkhruud, perhaps our ways are different in this. Here is our way: we presume that the humans are, and will behave as, diplomats while with us. But since we could be wrong, we must take steps to minimize what damage they might do should their actions show them to be saboteurs. For this reason, and for their own protection, as well, we require that they have a security escort.”

First Voice stood. “You will have your ‘security escort,’ since you seem uncertain of being able to guard unarmed prisoners yourselves.” His crest flattened and he did not bother to look back down at Hu’urs Khraam before he turned and left. Graagkhruud’s exit was equally abrupt and without acknowledgment of his Arat Kur hosts. Yaargraukh stood, opened his hands and showed Hu’urs Khraam his palms in what was a military show of respect, and then strode quickly after his superior.

Darzhee Kut interlocked his claws, looked down for a moment, then up at Hu’urs Khraam–who was already looking at him. “What is your opinion of the Hkh’Rkh, Darzhee Kut?”

“I hesitate to reply, First Delegate, for I can only sing the notes I truly hear.”

“I asked you to come today so you could sing just such notes.”

Darzhee Kut spread his claws slowly. “Their reaction to our emissaries bears out our fears regarding the Hkh’Rkh as allies. They are intemperate, impatient, occasionally dismissive of crucial details. They are strong but inelegant in their thought and intolerant of difference. I do observe however, that the Advocate, who is also a member of a New Family–a lower class among the Hkh’Rkh–has few of these detriments.”

“Let us dig to the first stone of the foundation. Can we trust them?”

“To keep their word? Yes, absolutely.”

“And to perform the tasks as they must? For if upon landing, they are tried by a sharp insurgency, they must be firm but restrained in their response. Do you think they can achieve this?

“Esteemed Hu’urs Khraam, I do not know. Some, such as Yaargraukh, could. Some, such as Graagkhruud, cannot.”

“And First Voice?”

“He has wisdom, but its melodies are often lost amidst the old rhythms of his heritage and his legacy as the scion of the greatest of the Old Families. I feel his common sense is great enough to perceive the wisdom of what Yaargraukh says, but I fear that his pride is too great to hear it over the roar of Graagkhruud’s exhortations to pursue honor and total war.”

“I fear this as well. But, if the humans accede to our terms, we shall depart quickly, and our allies will not need to restrain themselves for long. Happily, our swift victory will give them little opportunity to err.”

Darzhee Kut wriggled slightly in his couch. “The humans might agree to negotiate, but they will not agree to the Hkh’Rkh terms. Indeed, I fear they will not even agree to ours.”

“But to surrender 70 Ophiuchi would only show reason, wisdom.”

“So might we see it. But the Hkh’Rkh would see it as proof of fear and lack of resolve–which is just how the humans themselves will see it.”

“This makes them akin to the Hkh’Rkh.”

“I wish to sing notes that ever harmonize with yours, esteemed Hu’urs Khraam, but I think you will find that particular estimate of the humans to be incorrect. They are very different from the Hkh’Rkh.” He paused, looked at the image of Caine Riordan’s focused and carefully unemotional face frozen on the screen behind him. “They are very different indeed.”