Trial By Fire – Snippet 33

Part Two

December 2119

Chapter Fifteen

Washington, D.C, Earth

When Downing returned to the conference room from the fresher, he started. Opal Patrone was there waiting for him.

“You’re early, Major. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Closed museums.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The museums are closed. The public buildings are off-limits. Congress is in seclusion. DC has become one dull city.”

Downing grimaced. “As long as the Arat Kur continue to consider it more dull than Jakarta, I’ll consider it a blessing.”

Opal’s jaw came out in a truculent, fine-pointed wedge. “At least in Jakarta we’re fighting the bastards directly.”

“Except, Major, that too many of the bastards are our own people, taking the traitor’s coin from either the megacorporations or President-for-Life Ruap.”

The door to the conference room opened again. Trevor walked in a step ahead of Elena, who was carrying a mostly empty shopping bag.

Downing’s first impulse was to cross the room to Trev, but their parting on Barney Deucy had been anything but warm. And although all the reports indicated that Trevor had been turned over by the Arat Kur in “excellent condition,” one could never be sure if Nolan Corcoran’s son was simply playing the role he was expected to play: the bluff, impregnable ex-SEAL.

So, uncertain what to do, and once again awkward with the people he loved the most, Richard leaned both his hands on the conference table and said, “Welcome home, Trevor. It’s good to have you back, safe and sound.” Neither seeing nor hearing any contradictions to the happy assumptions of that greeting, Downing turned to Elena. “Christmas shopping for Connor?”

“Trying to,” muttered Elena, “The stores have almost nothing left in them for a thirteen-year-old boy, and even less staff to find it for you. And there’s still a lot of panic: most streets are empty and most offices are closed. But look who I met coming into this building.” She smiled at Trevor.

Who smiled back–somewhat wanly, Richard thought. Is he tired, still infuriated at me for turning his father’s body over the Dornaani, or some combination of the two? “No worse for wear after the debriefings with the intelligence chiefs and the POTUS, Trev?”

Trevor shrugged. “No. Although the Arat Kur treated me better than the intel folks. You’d have thought I was an enemy agent.”

“It’s the way they’re trained to think. You’ve been in the enemy camp and come as the messenger bearing their new terms for our capitulation. You’re damaged goods to them, I’m afraid.”

“Well, I didn’t enjoy being their chew-toy for my first day home.”

“So, the Arat Kur treated you more civilly?”

Trevor quirked a smile. “Actually, in some ways, they did. The one who found us–or rather, the Arat Kur that Caine and I found–wasn’t a bad little guy. For a scum-sucking alien invader, that is.” Trevor saw Opal smile, returned it. Perhaps a little too broadly and readily, Downing thought.

“You are referring to the Arat Kur named”–Downing checked his palmtop–“Darzhee Kut?”

“Yep. Most of the other Arat Kur were standoffish, but still polite and careful in their treatment of us.”

“You haven’t said anything about the Hkh’Rkh, though.”

Trevor looked sideways. “If Caine and I had been their guests, I think we’d have been lucky to get bread, water, and a shared head. Hell, I think we’d have been lucky not to be shown out the nearest airlock. Fortunately, Yaargraukh was there–our Advocate from the Convocation–and he talked them out of their initial blood frenzy. But most of them never really changed their opinion of us.”

Opal’s eyes were on his, unblinking. “Given Hkh’Rkh hospitality, I’m just glad that the Arat Kur made sure both of you survived that misunderstanding. But–no offense, Trevor–why did they send you back? You’re a soldier: Caine was our Speaker at Convocation, almost a third ambassador. Shouldn’t he have been the one the Arat Kur sent back with new terms?”

Trevor avoided her sustained gaze. “Actually, that’s kind of why Caine insisted on being the one to stay behind. And he managed to persuade Darzhee Kut to support it, too. I told them they were wrong, but–”

“But Caine convinced Darzhee Kut that your military career made you just that much more annoying to the Hkh’Rkh?” asked Opal. “Put you that much more at risk than him?”

Trevor nodded, his eyes still evasive and uncomfortable. Downing looked away, being the only person other than Trevor who possessed the prerequisite knowledge to understand his deeper levels of guilt. And you fought–hard–to stay in Caine’s place, didn’t you, Trev? You had to, because if the worst happens, then Connor loses the opportunity of ever meeting his father, and Elena loses the possibility of marrying the man she still obviously loves. But Caine outflanked you, found a way to prevent you from taking the danger on yourself. And it’s eating you alive that he did.

Opal still looked vaguely worried. “Trevor, Caine is all right–isn’t he?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Trevor said, feigning a dismissive wave. “He may be safer than any of us. After all, he’s sitting up in orbit with the Arat Kur, not down here in their cross-hairs. Not that the Hkh’Rkh wanted to keep him around, but they didn’t have any choice in the matter. Because they are so significantly technologically inferior to the Arat Kur, they’re clearly playing second fiddle. That’s probably annoyed the Hkh’Rkh from the moment they agreed to conduct joint operations, which is only possibly because they’re being carried piggyback.”

Downing started taking notes. “What do you mean by that?”

“Well, the Hkh’Rkh lack the shift range to attack our space with their own shift-carriers. So their constant chest-thumping about how they are self-reliant, dominant warriors makes about as much sense as a six-year-old in a booster seat claiming that he’s driving the car.”

“Ouch,” said Opal with a grin. Which, once again, Trevor swiftly answered with one of his own.

Which, once again, worried Downing. “And how do the Arat Kur feel about the Hkh’Rkh?”

Trevor shrugged. “They didn’t say and we knew not to ask. But, from the interactions I saw, the Arat Kur aren’t completely comfortable with their allies. Darzhee Kut made it pretty clear that his species is highly conflict-aversive. Harmonizing with each others’ opinions and emotions seems to be one of their strongest social drives.”

“Apparently that doesn’t include harmonizing with other species.”

Trevor rubbed his chin. “You know, I thought that at first, too. But Caine sensed highly receptive attitudes in some of them, and I’m not so sure he’s wrong. They do seem to get along better with us as individuals than they do with the Hkh’Rkh.”

The irony got the better of Downing. “Then why the bloody hell did the Arat Kur attack us?”

Trevor shrugged. “We didn’t get into that. Not an officially sanctioned topic of conversation, I suspect. Speaking of official topics of conversations and war plans, when I was in the Oval Office, there were some veiled references to us counterattacking their fleet out at Jupiter. Any word on how that went?”

Downing nodded and activated the room’s main display. “We just got this thirty minutes ago.” He aimed his palmcomp at the screen, thumbed a virtual button, leaned back, and suppressed a sigh.

The screen flickered to life, showing the long keel of a naval shift carrier. The crook-armed midship hull cradles were almost empty; the carrier’s complement of cruisers, frigates, sloops and drones was deployed elsewhere in the inky blackness that filled the rest of the screen. They were probably not that far away–some less than a hundred kilometers, probably–but at that range, even the largest battle cruiser in Earth’s entire military inventory would not show up as anything other than an inconstant star, its brightness altering slightly as it changed its attitude or applied thrust. Along the bottom of the screen, white, block-letter coding indicated that the perspective was from the ESS Egalité.

The curved white expanse of one of the few still-docked hulls rose higher into the frame as it cast off from the shift-carrier. Elena cleared her throat. “Perhaps everyone else knows what we’re looking at, but I’d be grateful for a little context, please.”

“That’s a cruiser, El, Andrew Bolton class,” Trevor answered. A pair of tapered arrowhead shapes rose up from underneath the cruiser itself: two sleek remoras emerging from beneath the thick body of a bull shark. Trevor resumed his narrative. “Those two streamlined boats are the newest sloops in the Commonwealth inventory; the ‘Gordon’ class. Sloop is now a slang term, though. Navy acronymization has relabeled them as ‘FOCALs’: Forward Operations Control and Attack Leaders.”