Trial By Fire – Snippet 36

Chapter Sixteen

Washington, D.C., Earth

Richard heard Elena’s response as a chorus with his own. “Nothing?”

Trevor nodded. “Despite the global panic, the World Confederation Council sees our current situation as a standoff. With the Arat Kur controlling orbital space, we can’t fight back effectively. But on the ground, the Arat Kur know they’ve got a tiger by the tail. And as the militarily weaker power, a stalemate is actually to our advantage. So we force them to make the next move.”

Downing nodded. “And if they overreact by extending their attacks to the larger landmasses, they will lose even more control of the planetside situation.”

Elena frowned. “Really? So if the current level of panic isn’t enough to compel us to surrender, why won’t they just start bombing our cities, one after the other?”

Trevor answered before Downing could. “Couple of reasons. First, even if they do that, the invaders only have enough ground forces to control a dozen or so key points in Indonesia. And even there, they’re already having a harder time than they thought. Secondly, it’s not in their political interests to widen the war in any way. As long as they’re after a settlement rather than conquest, it won’t play well across the globe. And if they can’t secure their gains directly, then when–or maybe ‘if’–the Dornaani show up, the invaders will suddenly be the ones without any bargaining power, without anything to give back in exchange for either concessions or clemency.”

Downing smiled. “And although all reports indicate that the Hkh’Rkh are excellent assault troops, the first signs indicate that they will be a dreadful occupation force.”

Elena nodded. “From that one social event we shared with them on the Convocation Station, it was pretty clear that they lack the patience for endless rounds of guard duty and garrison tasks.”

Trevor jumped in again. “Not only that. From what I heard in the Oval Office, the few mixed exosapient units that are providing ‘security support’ for CoDevCo’s Indonesian mass driver aren’t working together so well. Specifically, the Arat Kur are already having severe problems keeping a leash on Hkh’Rkh in the counterinsurgency role. For the Hkh’Rkh, war is waged by and against clearly designated combatants. Everyone else is presumed–and encouraged–to make every attempt to evacuate the area of engagement. So when guerrilla units have hit the Hkh’Rkh, they want to strike back–not just hard, but brutally. For them, sneak attacks mounted by insurgents who fade back into the population are acts of cowardice and implicit treachery that warrant full reprisals.”

“Such as?”

“Such as annihilation of any town that seems to have concealed, aided, or abetted the guerillas.”

“And by annihilation, you mean–?”

“Men. Women. Children. Kittens. Everything. With bombs or bayonets: it’s all the same to the Hkh’Rkh. They’ve been protecting the mass driver site for less than forty-eight hours, and already there are reports of nearby kempangs–villages–completely wiped off the map.”

Downing stared at the date and time stripe as the bottom of his palmcomp. “And those Indonesian guerillas are going to become more active with every passing day.”

“Because of the atrocities?” Elena asked.

“No,” interjected Opal with a malicious smile, “because of the weather. The one time I did mission prep for that part of the world was sixty years ago, but I doubt monsoon season has changed that much.” She leaned back, stared at the ceiling as the information rolled out of her. “More than a centimeter of rain every day, and when it comes down, it comes down in sheets. Temperature rarely gets under eighty, keeping the humidity at eighty-five percent or higher. Thermal and IR gear is degraded. The ambient noise background is messy. Mud everywhere.” She folded her arms. “Bottom line, if you were born there, or in a similar climate in Southeast Asia, you’re used to it, know how to use it to your advantage. If you’re a newb, you are in deep shit.” Still looking at the ceiling, or maybe through it to the orbiting ships overhead, she grinned viciously. “Welcome to Earth, you alien bastards.”

Trevor smiled, but Elena was nodding thoughtfully. “All of which means that the Hkh’Rkh will be more frustrated, and so more harsh and frequent in their reprisals. But the Arat Kur know that images depicting ‘ruthless alien invaders’ slaughtering women and children will destroy any chance of keeping even a small minority of humans interested in a ‘peace process.'”

Trevor’s nod was one of grim, vengeful satisfaction. “Or willing to accept new leadership.”

Opal turned her gaze down from the ceiling. “What do you mean?”

“I mean the megacorporations. All the bloc leaders believe that the Arat Kur demand for a speciate referendum to approve the World Confederation is a backdoor move to effect a global regime change, one that puts the megacorporations–CoDevCo in particular–in charge. And once they are in control, the fear is that they won’t bother to raise an army to impose their will. They’ll make one.”

“You mean clones?” Elena asked. “They’ve already started breaking those laws, from what I hear.”

Downing nodded. “Former finance minister Ruap’s antibloc politics wasn’t the only thing which made the Arat Kur eager to see him holding power in Indonesia. It was his extremely cozy relationship with Astor-Smath and CoDevCo.” He shook his head. “Which means the Arat Kur had all this planned before they loaded their invasion fleet. Even before we all went to the Convocation.”

Trevor scratched his ear. “Speaking of plans, President Liu did manage to pass me a message for you, through her chief of staff.”

“Which was?”

Trevor handed over a slip of plain white paper. Written in Liu’s flowing hand, Downing saw:


ª Case Leo Gap

• Case Vernal Rains

• Case Ifuc1

• Case Timber Pony

All Cases approved for final phase activation.

See me ASAP.


It was the message Richard had been waiting for. And the message which determined what he had to do next. After sharing its contents, he explained. “It is fortuitous that you are all here, because this message clears the path for us, and IRIS, to make a tangible contribution to the defense of Earth. It’s a small operation, and difficult, but potentially decisive.”

Trevor leaned back. “What’s the objective?”

“Disable the Arat Kur’s planetside command, control, and computing net for several crucial minutes.”

Opal stared. “And how are we supposed to do that?”

“By infiltrating a strike team directly into their headquarters and neutralizing it.”

“Uncle Richard,” said a slightly pale Trevor, “with all due respect, I don’t see how we–how IRIS–can carry out such a purely military operation. You’re talking about a plan involving hundreds of bombs and probably thousands of spec ops troops with a shared death-wish.”

“No. It will involve about a dozen diplomatic passes and an equal number of covert operatives, posing as Earth’s armistice negotiation team and its support staff.”

Trevor shook his head. “But there’s not going to be any negotiation. First Consul Ching is about to do what he’s already become famous for: making no response.”

“Yes, and that will nicely pave the way for this plan’s success.”

“You’ve lost me.”

Downing folded his hands. “Through you, Trevor, the Arat Kur sent us new peace terms. We have remained silent. What will they do when, in five hours, their fifty-hour response deadline runs out?”

“Try to force an answer out of us.”

“And how will they do that?”

Elena saw it first. “They’re going to tighten the screws, show us that we cannot ignore them.”

“Precisely.” Yes, Elena is certainly her father’s daughter. And brave, too, given the bandits she had to face down during her anthropology field work. “And so, when the consequent cries of global misery begin to hit the bloc leadership, the Confederation will be forced to act, to give in and resume talks.”

Trevor saw it now. “So, only because the Arat Kur themselves force us to do so, we will send a negotiation team. And because we resisted doing so until they left us no choice, they will not suspect that they are actually giving us the opportunity we most want: to be summoned–with our tail apparently between our legs–to their seat of power in Indonesia.” He nodded. “Pretty shrewd, but how do you arm the infiltration team? Even if the Arat Kur don’t detect them as impostors, no one’s going to let our strikers traipse into Jakarta with golf bags full of combat gear.”

“Of course not. That’s why operational caches are already prepositioned there. Have been, for some time.”

Trevor frowned. “How could you know that they’d invade Indonesia and where they’d set up their HQ in Jakarta?”

“We had strong suspicions they’d go after Indonesia because of its isolation and because of the mass driver. And once our operatives sparked the protests that demolished the terminals and hotels at Soekarno Airport right after the invaders’ first initial landings–”

Opal’s eyes were wide. “We did that?”

“–then the Arat Kur had to consolidate their command elements in Jakarta itself. That in turn left them with a fairly limited number of options. Which meant they needed a large defensible compound with good C4I facilities that they could upgrade. Again, not a long list of options. We concealed equipment caches in all the probable sites. We also made sure that when Ruap’s government started recruiting locals for the mundane housekeeping tasks–sanitation, food delivery, basic maintenance–that we had some highly motivated sympathetics in the mix.”

“So when our strike team arrives in their guise as negotiators, their gear is already waiting for them on-site.”

“Correct, and there will be diversions and distractions timed to allow them to get access to it.”

Trevor nodded. “Sounds like a plan. In fact, it sounds like the kind of scheme that Caine would come up with, if he was here.”

Downing’s smile was a bit sad. “Oh, it was his plan, all right.”

“What?” said Trevor. “But for the past half year, he’s been–”

“This goes back beyond half a year, Trev.” Downing was careful not to look at Elena as he explained. “This goes all the way back to when we first awakened Caine in 2118, even before we code-named him Odysseus.” Downing pushed a virtual button on his palmcomp and the main screen snapped to life again.

It showed Caine splicing wires in one of his initial training exercises. He didn’t look up as he spoke. “If these aliens intend to rule us rather than exterminate us, they’ll want to avoid a ‘final solution.’ So you dangle the prospect of capitulation–or even collaboration–under their noses while preparing to strike at them.”

Downing’s recorded voice–coming from very close to the camera–countered with, “And with their superior technology, how do you propose to get close enough to strike at them?”

Caine glanced up. “By getting–or prepositioning–forces inside their beachhead. And don’t give me that doubting-Thomas look: there are always methods of infiltrating forces through seemingly secure perimeters or impassable borders. Even the old ploy of the Trojan Horse still has some merit; it just needs some clever updating.”

Downing turned off the flatscreen and glanced at Trevor. “That casual brainstorming session led your father to do exactly what Caine suggested: update the Trojan Horse ploy. Have the enemy themselves bring our strike team inside their HQ. That was the basis of the operation Nolan labeled Case Timber Pony, for which President Liu just gave the final green light.” Downing waved the slip of paper. “It is also the lynchpin of our strategy to take back control of the planetside situation. Without their dirtside C4I net, the Arat Kur will not be able to call for or coordinate orbital supporting fire. And by the time they get that control back, some of our best forces will be in among them and, therefore, untouchable by their standoff assets.”

Trevor was still staring at the blank screen. “And who are the negotiators you’re sending into this lion’s den?”

“It must be a mixed team. Some will be genuine government officials who happen to have combat backgrounds. There will be an equal number of tier one and tier two operators–Delta, Seals, SAS, Special Forces–who have enough of a background in political and foreign affairs that they can make convincing noises as diplomatic support staff for a day or two. And we’ll need at least one operator who is personally known to the Arat Kur, and whose participation will reassure them, beyond reasonable doubt, that the delegation is legitimate.”

Both Elena and Opal sat up ramrod straight. “You wouldn’t–”

“In short,” Downing finished, “we need you, Trevor.”

For a moment, Trevor just stared, then he blinked. “I am exactly the wrong person to send. We–Caine and I–have a personal bond of honor with Darzhee Kut. After what we went through together, he trusts that neither of us would ever–”

“Which is exactly why it must be you, Trevor,” pressed Richard. “Not only because Darzhee Kut and his leaders know you from the Convocation and from your time in the Arat Kur fleet, but because you and he had to create an unusual bond just in order to survive. His confidence in you–and by extension, the Arat Kurs’ confidence in you–is exactly the edge we need: a blind-spot, a chink in their armor, which we can exploit to get in and strike them when and where they least expect it. And when and where it will do us the most good.” Downing paused, saw that logic alone would not win Trevor over. There needed to be a personal, an emotional, compulsion as well. “Trevor, you are absolutely indispensable to the success of this mission, and that this isn’t just my assessment. It was, indirectly, your father’s, as well.”