Trial By Fire – Snippet 38

Chapter Seventeen

Over West Java, Earth

Sitting beside Darzhee Kut, Yaargraukh peered out rear of the extended cockpit canopy. The waves scudding beneath them were now occasionally distressed by small rocks, diminutive islands. “We are approaching the landing zone.”

Darzhee Kut clasped to his seat more tightly. This was a part of his calling that he had never envisioned. “How soon until we arrive?”

“Ten minutes,” answered the Arat Kur at the controls. “Assuming–”

The pilot abruptly stopped speaking, pulled the spaceplane into a steep left-handed dive. The plume of a rocket–the thick white exhaust clumped and bloated like a kilometer-long length of intestines–shot up and past them, not more than ten meters away from Darzhee’s recoiling antenna.

“Counterfire!” Yaargraukh’s order was snarled into his commo clip.

Their two Hkh’Rkh escort craft banked, seeking the active sensors the humans had used in acquiring a lock on the spaceplane. An eyeblink later, a dense cluster of down-shooting, white-hot lines streaked dirtside, a ripple of supersonic cracklings trailing a second behind them: rail-launched kinetic-kill cluster warheads, heading planetside at six or seven times the speed of sound.

Darzhee Kut looked over at the Hkh’Rkh Advocate. “Do they have a target already?”

“No, but the orbital interdiction batteries will have backtracked the missile’s plume. They are simply firing at its point of origin.”

Darzhee looked out the window sheepishly, as if someone on the ground would see him and try to fire again. “The humans will not be so foolish as to loiter at the launch point.”

“Of course not. I doubt they were ever near it, but rather controlled the launch from a remote location. They probably have their active sensors dispersed, as well. That means we have nothing to shoot at, no efficacious response. So we do something pointless. And we feel better.”

Darzhee turned as swiftly as his carapace would allow. Yaargraukh was looking straight at him. Darzhee stole a glance at the rear of the craft. Graagkhruud was deep in a growling exchange with First Voice. “If First Voice heard you–”

“Then it would be among the few times he ever did.” Yaargraukh unstrapped, tried to take a step backward, found the afterdeck of the Arat Kur spaceplane too cramped. He was unable to do more than crouch. “I grow weary of this.”

“Of what? The constrictions of our craft?”

“No, of being brought along as an Advocate that is uniformly ignored.” He turned to Darzhee. “I was a tactical advisor before this. Had I been allowed to remain such, at least my efforts and input would be sought and recognized. And perhaps then we might not have quite so many problems as we do now.”

“Why? Are the strategies recommended by Graagkhruud ill-advised?”

“They are wrong. The humans do not fight as we do, but nor are they the cowards he believes. He does not understand them and he cannot win against them if he does not. The humans know this. Well, some of them do.”

“They do?”

“One, Sun Tzu, wrote, ‘if you would be victorious, know thy enemy.’ I can only hope the humans have forgotten their own axiom. But I think not.”

Darzhee felt the shuttle pull into another, but more gradual, turn. The pilot announced, “Apologies for my interruption. We are holding here until the landing zone at Soekarno airfield is available.”

“There is unexpected traffic?”

Yaargraukh placed a finger on his earpiece and grunted. “There is unexpected insurgency.”

Darzhee felt the wiggling-snake feeling in his upper digestive tract that was the Arat Kur fear reflex. “What?”

Yaargraukh, listening, offered quick updates. “Fifteen, maybe twenty insurgents. Half were killed. Almost all got inside the perimeter.”

“But how?”

“Delivery of comestibles. Explosive devices were apparently already buried someplace within the defense perimeter. An external attack–a feint–on the opposite side of the compound. Our troops rushed there, so security was reduced at the logistical ingress point. Several of the disguised insurgents managed to slip away from the food trucks. They deployed the final, triggering bombs. Casualties–” He paused and removed the earpiece, looked out the canopy into the clear blue sky overhead. “Casualties are high.”

“How high?”

“Dozens. Including some of my clan. I knew them. Personally. We shared knives at feast.”

Darzhee experienced a rare sensation. He did not know what to say. “But there are prisoners to interrogate, so there will be a counterattack–yes?”

Still looking at the blue, Yaargraukh wiggled his neck lazily. “Prisoners, yes. But they will not lead us to anything useful.”

“Certainly they can be made to speak what they know.”

“Certainly. Your drugs and our–methods–are equally effective. But it hardly matters, because the humans do not bother to resist. They tell the truth freely and immediately.”


“Then we look for what they have told us about. The safe houses are empty. The hidden camps are deserted, and the supply trucks–indistinguishable from those which carry produce–are gone.”

“I do not understand.”

Yaargraukh turned to Darzhee. “The human commanders plan on having their insurgents captured. They tell them to confess and share any information they have. And it is useless to us, because the moment any of their number are captured or lag too far behind, the transponders they wear code them as being ‘lost.’ And so their commanders move everything, that very moment. By the time we have rounded up the prisoners, asked our questions, assemble a reprisal squad, they are gone. Unless they have left an ambush team behind, either with guns or control-detonated bombs.”

“They sound very well organized.”

“Too well organized, if my opinion were to be asked. I find the aptness of their tactics, and the promptness with which they began to exercise them, improbable.”

“What is improbable”–it was Graagkhruud’s voice, a rumble of rocks jounced together in a bag–“is that your defeatist attitude allows you to remain in First Voice’s service, Advocate.” He emerged from the passenger section into the forward cabin. “Perhaps you would do better clearing the streets of our adversaries?”

“The First Fist of the First Voice of the First Family would know better than I.” But Yaargraukh did not lower his crest, or his eyes, as he recited the ritual obeisance.

Graagkhruud looked down his considerable snout in such a way that Darzhee Kut felt he was under his gaze as well. “There is no problem here that we could not solve were we not constrained by the Arat Kur rules of engagement.”

“And what would you do if freed of them, First Fist?” asked Darzhee Kut, expecting the Hkh’Rkh would pause briefly to consider tactical alternatives.

Graagkhruud did not even stop to draw a new breath. “Hold hostages. Kill ten of them for every one they kill of ours. Place towns under death-interdict: an attack on one of our bases results in the firebombing of five of their kempangs. They can be stopped and their will can be broken.” He turned to Yaargraukh, whose black-worm tongue had snaked out once, briefly, at the height of the strategic tirade. “Do you opine otherwise, servitor?”

“I believe that the plan may be more easily articulated than realized.”

Graagkhruud fluted the phlegm in his nostrils. “It is well you are Advocate. As a Tactical Leader, you would have only led your troops to death.”

“He has no record of ever having done so in the past, First Fist.” First Voice had emerged from the secure suite in the center of the fuselage. “And for now, he will remain the Advocate.” The spaceplane banked again. The early morning light that came through the starboard windows angled more acutely, disappeared, then streamed in portside as yellow beams. “Pilot: report.”

The Arat Kur at the controls leveled them off. “We have just been redirected to the cargo airfield north of Tasikmalaya, First Voice.”

“We have no need to visit the mass driver, pilot.”

“With apologies, that is not the purpose of our redirection. The airspace security at Soekarno airfield is not yet deemed fully secure. We will land at North Tasikmalaya, refuel, await clearance from Jakarta.”

First Voice’s crest flattened. He looked over at Darzhee Kut. “Hu’urs Khraam assured me that your missile intercept systems would be more than adequate to counteract such attacks.”

Darzhee Kut had a momentary vision–and panic–of the immense carnivore leaning over to devour him on the spot. “I am unable to speak to the First Delegate’s assurances on this matter. Pilot, is there any word why the air defenses are unable to ensure our safe approach to Jakarta at this time?”

“Speaker Kut, the humans intermittently salvo many small rockets–some dangerous, some not–to saturate our defense arrays. Sometimes they do this for no apparent reason; sometimes they do it when they intend to make some purposeful attack. While our point defense fire systems are occupied with these many targets, the humans occasionally manage to launch a high-performance missile that cannot be engaged soon enough and which penetrates the primary defense umbrella. I am told that more air-defense batteries are being emplaced every day.”

And if Urzueth sings true, we will soon have deployed almost all that we have. Who could have known that hundreds of these units would be required for such a small theater of operations?

First Voice emitted a rippling snort: the Hkh’Rkh equivalent of a sigh. “First Fist, we have a firebase at North Tasikmalaya. What is the size of the contingent?”

“Five hundred warriors, organized as fifty troops of ten, First Voice. Twenty Arat Kur in powered armored suits provide heavy support.”

“Is this not also the site where we have human auxiliaries in support of our operations?”

Graagkhruud’s eyes vanished for a second then bulged outward. “First Voice of the First Family cannot mean me to include these beings in my report of our strength in that place.”

“They are assets which relieve our warriors of other duties, thereby allowing more of them to be deployed for direct engagement at any moment.”

“It is as you say, First Voice of the First Family.”

Darzhee watched First Voice’s crest furl and soften a bit. “First Fist, I am not chastising you, but I need complete information at all times.”

Graagkhruud’s nostrils seemed to tremble. “Esteemed First and son of my mother’s father, I live to serve you with honor and distinction, so I plead that you hear me. We must count on ourselves alone in this enterprise. Our Arat Kur allies seem acceptably competent in the distant button-pushing that passes for war between the stars. But they must give you more freedom and more control of the true war: the war on this planet. They trust to machines and hide in their buildings. The humans have not learned to fear us and obey. And they must, or we are doomed. We are too few, even against such weak opponents, if they cannot be cowed into a reflex of submission.”

First Voice gently touched a claw to one of Graagkhruud’s. “I hear your words, but for now, we will follow the strategy we have agreed upon with Hu’urs Khraam.”

“With respect, we are already frustrated in the following of that strategy.”

“How do you mean these words, First Fist?”

“The Arat Kur and we had settled upon maritime interdiction as a cornerstone of our plan. Complete isolation of the occupied islands was deemed essential.”

“And so we had intended. But Indonesia’s self-sufficiency in food was lost when so many of its rice storage facilities were destroyed, first during President Ruap’s rise to power, and again during the outcry at our landings.” First Voice waved a dismissive pseudohand. “We must accept the changed conditions. Such are the vagaries of war.”

“Perhaps not, First Voice of the First Family.” Yaargraukh was still looking out the canopy, as they began their descent, their angle of approach paralleling the southern downslope of Gunung Sawal.

“And how is the loss of human food something other than a vagary of war, Advocate?”

“Because I do not believe that it was by chance that the human foodstuffs were destroyed. It was sabotage.”

Darzhee Kut felt his sensory polyps sag in shock. “But why?”

First Voice’s tone was calm and contemplative as he stared long and steady at Yaargraukh. “To force us to choose between selectively relaxing the maritime blockade or starving the population. By rescinding the total blockade, we must now patrol more carefully, which stretches our already insufficient forces thinner and taxes our monitoring capabilities. However, maintaining the complete blockade would result in famine, disease, and their inevitable sequelae: unrest and then suicidal revolt. The humans found a way to present us with two bad choices. We could only elect to avoid the worst.”

Graagkhruud looked at Yaargraukh as though he were personally responsible. “And so now our security cordon is no longer inviolate. Dozens of their freighters arrive in Jakarta, Surabaja, and the other allowed port cities every day.”

“Any trickle of supplies and insurgents which might somehow slip through our monitoring of these ships’ crews and cargos will be manageable,” First Voice affirmed. “However, the alternative–a mounting flood of starving, angry, desperate hordes–would surely wash over all our guns and walls and drown us in our compounds.”

“Still, I do not like it. It is a suspicious development.”

“I agree, but there is a suspicious development which troubles me more.”

“Do you refer to the mystery ship, that continues to move further out of the system, First Voice?”

“It is a mystery ship no longer, First Voice,” offered Darzhee Kut. “We have identified it as the civilian shift carrier TankyÅ«-sha Maru, registered to the Transoceanic Industrial and Commercial Organization. It is largely crewed by persons from the nation known as Japan. It is well into the Kuiper Belt now, and still traveling outward at point two five cee. It does not respond to our hails or our offers of assistance.”

“Is it a wreck?” wondered Yaargraukh. “Disabled? Damaged in our initial attack?”

“Unlikely, Advocate. We have detected low, intermittent engine activity. More significantly, though, this ship had already achieved preacceleration and was ready to shift when our first fleet elements arrived eleven days ago.”

First Fist ran a claw down the side of the hairless, almost tubelike snout that was also his face. “So then it must be a wreck, unable to either shift or to effect a constant course change and return.”

First Voice rumbled. “Probably so, but it is also true that a preaccelerated ship is a perfect courier, ready to shift instantly to some other system.”

Graagkhruud’s crest frisked a bit. “And where would they go? And if they wished to report what the rest of humanity must already know or guess–that Earth’s fleet is destroyed and her surface knows the tread of new masters–why did they not do it when we arrived, or when we first landed? No, First Voice, your dreams are filled with worries already. Do not add this to them. Be assured that this is a matter of little or no concern. If there are humans on board, do not be alarmed that they do not reply. As today’s deadline approaches, do we not have evidence that this race is indisposed to respond to us even under congenial circumstances? So the silence of this ship is hardly a surprise and hardly a circumstance worthy of your worry. After all, we already know the cause of many of their silences: they are cowards and fear to engage us with either words or weapons.”

Yaargraukh eyes bulged slightly. “Peculiar, then, that we should have to be redirected away from our landing site because of an attack by a race of cowards.”

“You know the meaning of my words, Advocate. Have caution your insolence is not answered with a Challenge. The humans are like vermin, like s’fet, darting in to bite us, scampering away under the dung of their cities and jungles because they lack the courage to stand and fight. The same is true of their words: they speak only to lie to us, and they grow silent when they are compelled to make honest responses to honorable questions or offers. They resemble the vile rodents of their own world–rats–and should be hunted down as such. I say again, the time for a moderate tongue is past. Now, the decisive claw must rule.”

Darzhee Kut saw and relayed the substance of the pilot’s warning gesture. “For now, First Fist, your very decisive claw must be strapped in. We are preparing to land.”