Trial By Fire – Snippet 39

Chapter Eighteen

Washington, D.C., Earth

Downing paused by his office’s outer door long enough to switch off the central power and data conduits. As he opened the door and shrugged into his coat, every circuit except for those which monitored the wall-embedded faraday cage physically disconnected from the power grid with a thrunk.

Even before he got the door closed, his palmcom buzzed in a pattern reserved for IRIS-related personnel. He tapped his collarcom. “Downing.”

“Hello, Uncle Richard?” Elena. Sounding contrite. A tone of voice he wasn’t much accustomed to, coming from her.

“Hello, Elena.”

“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry I left with a snide remark.”

“Understandable, Elena.” Nice getting an apology. In this business, he was usually the one making, not receiving them. “What can I do for you, dear?”

“Well, I wanted to talk to you about–oh, wait a minute. Is Trevor there?”

“No. He left the office just a few minutes after you did.”

“I see.”

Downing waited, began to wonder at the length of the pause–

“Uncle Richard, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”


“Not over the phone. Over dinner. My treat.”

“Well”–he looked at his watch–“I suppose so. Where do you wish to go?”


“Elena, that’s in Alexandria, rather off my beaten path. I know you’re fond of the ambiance, but–”

“Well, that’s just it, Uncle Richard. What I want to talk to you about is–well, it’s personal.”

“I see. Well then, yes, of course. Papillon it is. What time would you like to meet there?”

“A little after seven?”

“Can we make it a bit later?”

“Have you tried to get in there recently? They’re so swamped by eight PM, you’ll wait an hour just to get your salad.”

Richard checked his watch. “Fair enough. I’m going to have to step lively if I want to make it on time. See you there.”

“See you.”

As the elevator opened, he checked the IT security protocol update from Langley. They were recommending full surge protection measures from seven PM onward, full shut-down where feasible. Hmmm, expecting a lively night when the Arat Kur realize they’re not getting a reply to their new demands? Downing began buttoning his coat as the doors slid closed.

*   *   *

As Opal exited the cab with the groceries and prescription vitamins and supplements, she paged her townhouse, activated its welcome protocols, and checked her palmcom: no calls, no messages, or data to any of her accounts. She went up the stairs two at a time, grazed the print-reader with her thumb, inserted the mechanical key, and entered.

–and immediately saw the red light flashing rapidly on the house-control screen, just beyond the vestibule: not a casual message. A high priority send, either from a government source, or relayed through a government server. She plunked her shopping down unceremoniously on the table next to the coat rack and pressed the flashing light to trigger an immediate display.

It was a letter, and it was from Caine.


I am being allowed to send a brief message while under direct Arat Kur supervision. It may be the last you receive from me for a while, since I am waiting to board a shuttle that will, I am told, take me down to Jakarta.

I am well. My time at Barnard’s Star was interesting. And my time with the Arat Kur since then has been very informative.

I’m sorry this letter has to remain so general and bland, but I literally have two Arat Kur warders staring over my shoulder as I write it. However, please trust me when I tell you that, under no circumstances, including direct orders from Downing or any other superior, should you try to come to Jakarta. Based on what little I have seen of the planetbound military traffic, and the scant situation reports that my hosts have shared with me, the situation in Indonesia is becoming increasingly unpredictable and violent.

Please please please remain where you are and stay safe. And if you happen to–


Opal stepped back from the screen, realized she’d started crying. She didn’t stop to wipe her face, but slammed open the door into the hall closet. Sorry, Caine. Can’t take your advice. And I can’t wait for Downing to send me off to rescue you, probably with a bad team and a bad plan that’s likely to get both of us killed. Assuming he’d even give me the green-light in time. It’s three to one odds that poor, sweet Trevor is going to get crucified when Case Timber Pony gets exposed while in-country and that you’ll be left swinging in the breeze before I can get you out.

Nope, I’m not waiting. I know what needs to be done, and I’m going to get about doing it. Right now.

Uniform, boots, sidearm went into her gym bag. She wished she had web gear, but she’d take care of that as soon as she got to San Diego. That’s where scuttlebutt said the action was. Lots of boots were converging on that Pacific gateway port, more than remained in the billets there. Lots more. So they were getting shipped out to somewhere in the Pacific, and given what she’d heard in Downing’s office and in Caine’s message, she had a pretty good idea of where that would be.

Pulling the remaining gear out of the closet, she smiled through her still blurred vision. And if you thought I was just going to wait for you here, Caine Riordan, then you don’t know this country girl. Not by a fucking country mile, you don’t.

From low orbit to Jakarta, Earth

Flanked by a pair of combat-suited Arat Kur, Caine waited to board the shuttle while the Arat Kur administrator he had come to know as Urzueth Ragh attempted to engage him in small talk. “I conjecture that you are looking forward to returning to Earth. I know our improvised accommodations cannot have been very pleasing.”

Caine had no intention of replying, but glancing over, saw that Urzueth remained focused upon him, evincing the peculiarly canted posture which, in Arat Kur, indicated a resolve to wait. In perpetuity, if need be. Caine relented. “I have appreciated the many efforts you made at accommodating our unusual needs. The representatives of the Homenest have been most gracious.”

“As are you, for saying so,” Urzueth said with the bob that signified more than a nod but less than a bow. “But on the other point, are you not gratified to be returning home?”

Caine considered how to respond truthfully, but not provocatively. “Not under these conditions.”

Urzueth seemed distressed, but not particularly surprised. “I regret that the situation is so–discordant–on your planet, right now.”

Caine was not able to let that blithe euphemism pass unremarked. “I was not aware that ‘discordant’ was synonymous with ‘invasion,’ in the Arat Kur language.”

“Invasion?” Urzueth now seemed genuinely surprised. “It is true we have invaded this system, but not your planet.”

Caine turned to look at the Arat Kur directly. “Perhaps I have misinterpreted the updates from you and Darzhee Kut regarding the establishment of a blockade around Indonesia, your seizure of its mass driver, and the imposition of a no-fly restriction on the entirety of my planet?”

“You are correct in your recitation of the facts, Caine Riordan, but incorrect in attributing the causes. It is true that we imposed the no-fly restriction unilaterally, but we did so in order to fulfill our obligations to the human authorities who have invited us to protect the mass driver from sabotage, and Indonesia from extranational conquest.”

Caine was so stunned that he could only get out the words, “And who invited you–?” before the pressure door into the shuttle landing bay finally opened. The answer to Caine’s half-asked question walked through it.

A slender young woman wearing what amounted to CoDevCo livery stepped into the passenger and cargo marshalling area in which Caine and Urzueth waited. She extended a hand; her voice was soft, almost shy. “Mr. Riordan, I am Eimi Singh. I am here to escort you planetside, along with our exosapient guests.” She turned to Urzueth. “Is everyone gathered and ready, esteemed Administrator Urzueth? We have a fairly tight operational window, the flight crew tells me.”

“Not just yet, Ms. Singh. We are still awaiting–my error; here they are. The security consultants Mr. Ruap requested. Just over from their ship, I believe.”


Caine turned. Two Hkh’Rkh in battle gear emerged from the inter-bay access corridor and stalked toward the group, their massive, sloped shoulders swaying slightly from side to side as they approached.

Urzueth turned back to Caine. “Now, you wished to know who invited us to assist in your planet’s affairs, Caine Riordan?”

Riordan turned away. “You have just answered that question. Quite clearly.”

*   *   *

The CoDevCo shuttle did seem to be on a tight schedule. As soon as its attitude control thrusters had pushed it backward out of the bay, it performed a one-hundred-eighty-degree tumble, followed by a one-hundred-eighty-degree roll, and then nosed down into a fairly steep angle toward the atmosphere. Caine, at a window seat, affected a distracted hundred-meter stare to cover his intense scrutiny of every detail of every ship he could see. He had all of about half a minute in which he would be able to make observations.

In addition to a host of specifics which he hoped he would not forget if he ever got debriefed by naval technical intelligence experts, he was immediately struck by a profound overall impression of the Arat Kur warships in general. They were not, in fact, warships. Not in any permanent sense, at least. On close inspection, they appeared more like multipurpose designs.

As the shuttle accelerated briskly planetside, he glimpsed what looked like a frigate being serviced by a tender. But, in actuality, they were the same class of ship, or would have appeared so at a fast glance. Detailed study revealed that the majority of their differences were ultimately modular in nature. The frigate had a larger engine deck, had a greater number of thruster pods, and had launch bays in place of cargo containers. But otherwise, the similarities between the craft were marked.

Passing another hull–a small mothership for atmo-interface craft–Caine noted the same style of construction, and the exact same thruster pods he had seen on both the frigate and the tender.