Trial By Fire – Snippet 14

Trial By Fire – Snippet 14

Gaspard sniffed, turned away from Wasserman. “Only the basics. That there were five other species present–the Arat Kur, the Ktor, the Hkh’Rkh, the Slaasriithi, and the Dornaani. That the first three of those were not friendly, and that the Arat Kur were decidedly hostile. That the Dornaani are charged with being Custodians, a kind of overseer/peacekeeper duty, as I understand it. And the three unfriendly races–but again, particularly the Arat Kur–were laboring to exploit every possible procedural irregularity to ensure that Earth was denied membership in the Accord. However, their ultimate purpose for doing so remained obscure.”

Elena shifted in her seat. “Mr. Gaspard, having been present for those exchanges, I have to report that their reasons seemed anything but obscure. The Arat Kur, aided by the backroom machinations of the Ktor and the intemperate behavior of the Hkh’Rkh, were pushing us all toward war. And there’s an excellent chance that they will succeed. If they haven’t already.”

Gaspard tilted his head. “I seem to recall reading that the pretext upon which the Arat Kur based the majority of their procedural disruptions was the matter of our settlement of the 70 Ophiuchi system, no?”

“That is correct,” Downing said. “The Arat Kur claimed this was a violation of the Fifteenth Accord, which requires that all members of the Accord remain within their approved pathways of expansion. However, since we had commenced settlement of that system before we were first contacted eighteen weeks ago, the failure was not ours.”

“Which the Arat Kur accepted, no?”

“Yes, they accepted it. But they also wanted the Accord to order us out of the system.”

“But the Accord had no authority to do so,” objected Gaspard. “It may not dictate territorial policy to a species that has not been confirmed as a member of the Accord.”

Elena spoke over steepled fingers. “Of course, all these juridical details may become moot.”

Gaspard lifted his patrician chin. “How?”

“The Arat Kur may decide to forcibly evict us, regardless of the Accords. Which they suggested were not worthy of continued compliance, when the Custodians revealed the location of their homeworld to be Sigma Draconis. Of course, that may have been precisely the casus belli that the Arat Kur wanted. Throughout the proceedings, they were indirectly daring the Custodians to cross that line.”

“And there’s another clue that they were spoiling for a fight,” added Ben Hwang. “Whereas every other species allowed some cultural exchange, the Arat Kur refused to share any information about themselves. They gave us no clues as to their physiology, their biosphere, their interstellar distribution, or their civilization.”

At the word “civilization,” Richard saw Elena frown. “El,” he prompted, “what is it? What have you deduced about the Arat Kur?”

Elena shrugged. “I don’t have facts, only a hypothesis.” Silence and six pair of eyes invited her to amplify. “I believe the Arat Kur are primarily a subterranean species.”

Gaspard leaned forward. “Why do you think this, Ms. Corcoran?”

“Because of their idioms. The Dornaani translation technology is extremely sophisticated. Most pertinently, it uses semantic equivalences where it must, but transliterates axioms and colloquialisms that would make sense to the listener. Consider these two expressions from the remarks of the Arat Kur leader Hu’urs Khraam, who stepped in for their senior ambassador Zirsoo Kh’n when the political breach between the Arat Kur and the Custodians became imminent. Listen: ‘Your words dig tunnels in sand,’ and ‘your ultimatum leaves us no middle course: you force us to either scuttle back or shatter bedrock.’ In addition, consider the title of their polity–the Wholenest–and their apparent tendencies toward conservatism, bureaucratic proceduralism, and caution.”

Gaspard leaned his chin upon his palm. “And why would these be traits of a subterranean species?”

“Not just any subterranean species, but one which has achieved sapience. Consider the challenges they’d face in terms of population control, waste management, construction, water and food distribution. They can’t just fold up their tents and seek a better life over the next ridgeline. Indeed, they may not even have a word that combines the concept of being a ‘nomad’ with ‘sapience.’ All the particulars of a subterranean race’s existence would be dependent upon careful, logical, premeditated action.”

Ben Hwang was nodding slowly. “And they would tend to perceive anything less than that as irresponsible, impulsive, childish.”

“Or, possibly, insane.”

Lemuel grinned wickedly. “Won’t they have fun with the Hkh’Rkh if they become allies.”

Hwang frowned. “Just because the two species are dissimilar doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be an effective team. Each has what the other lacks; although Hkh’Rkh don’t evince the discipline and planning of the Arat Kur, they certainly seem to make up for it in daring and decisiveness.”

Gaspard leaned back. “If correct, your theories suggest key features of the Arat Kurs’ basic psychology. That is crucial strategic data.”

“Sure.” Opal stared into space as if she were thinking through the military and operational practicalities. “They’d probably be comfortable for long stays in space. No claustrophobia. Probably have comparatively poor eyesight: invariant light conditions and no need to scan a horizon. However, other senses might be enhanced. Also, I’ll bet they tend to build downward on the z axis, not upward, like us tree-dwellers. And I’d lay odds that their evolution did not include an aquatic phase, at least not as recently as ours. In fact, they might be highly hydrophobic. Underground, water becomes a real threat. Hit it while digging and you’ll kill hundreds, thousands. That also means they’re less likely to be seafaring at an early a point in their social evolution, therefore slower to spread to other landmasses. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if they can’t swim, or maybe can’t even float–“

Gaspard beamed. “Excellent. This is precisely what I came to hear: useful extrapolative information about a potential foe. It may all be hypothetical, but it is infinitely more than we had when I walked into this room.”

“While we are on the topic of the Arat Kur,” murmured Thandla, “I have another piece of information I think you will appreciate.”

The group looked at him, surprised–Gaspard most of all. “Dr. Thandla, have your research efforts been shifted to the Arat Kur? I was told that you were working on decoding the ‘child’s primer’ that the Slaasriithi gave us as a means of becoming acquainted with their race.”

Sanjay’s answering grin was very broad. “Oh no, you are quite right. I am working on the Slaasriithi primer.”

“So what does that have to do with the Arat Kur?”

“Everything. You see, the Slaasriithi also used the primer to pass us encoded information about the Arat Kur.”

Downing sat upright. “How much information, Dr. Thandla?”

Thandla looked sideways at Downing. “It is nothing like a dossier, Mr. Downing. It is far simpler than that, almost a puzzle, if you like. Indeed, I only thought to look for it after Ms. Corcoran noticed the Slaasriithi ambassador’s marked emphasis upon the importance of the primer’s supplementary information.”

Downing nodded. “And that is where you found the puzzle?”

“Correct. It is subtle. And quite tricky. Which I think was entirely intentional.”

Gaspard peered over folded hands. “What do you mean?”

“I believe the data was hidden not only to protect the Slaasriithi from being accused of sharing information pertaining to another species. I think their message was also a test. If we did not take the time or were not clever enough to ‘win’ at that game–well, that served their purposes, too.”

Elena smiled faintly. “So being able to find and decode the hidden message also meant that we were worthy of it.”

Thandla nodded. “Yes, and this is what I found: a single graphic comprised of multiple overlays.” An insanely irregular 3-D polygon appeared on the room’s main display. It looked vaguely like a cubistic python digesting a pig.

Hwang frowned. “What is that? Arat Kur genetics?”

Thandla smiled. “No, it’s–“

“Hot damn!” Lemuel Wasserman’s tone was triumphant. “That’s a 3-D map of interstellar space. Specifically, of the limits of Arat Kur space, judging from the buildup Sanjay’s given us. Which means that all the angles in that geodesic solid must be centered on stars, and all the connecting lines between each pair of angles must be proportional to the distances between the corresponding stars in Arat Kur space.”

Downing frowned. “But if you don’t know the distances–“

Lemuel shook his head and rode right over the top of Downing and Thandla’s attempt to resume his explanation. “You don’t need to know the distances. As long as the proportions are precise, that shape is like a fingerprint. And we know that, somewhere in there, is Sigma Draconis.”

Thandla smiled. “Just so. And here’s the next layer of the puzzle.” Now, at each of the polygon’s articulating points and intersections, a bright marker winked into being. Similar bright markers faded in from the darkness within the interior of the shape. Then, the lines joining all those star-points that were relatively close to each other illuminated slightly. Thandla pointed to an orange-yellow point near the jaw of the python. “That’s Sigma Draconis. The angles of incidence and the ratio of the distances to each of the adjoining stars is a precise match.”

Downing folded his hands to keep an eager quiver from becoming evident. “And you know what else those bright lines tell us.”

Wasserman grunted as he started racing through calculations on his palmcomp. “Their maximum shift range. Which will be a value somewhere between the longest illuminated line and the shortest nonilluminated line. Which will be a pretty small numerical range.”

“That conjecture assumes they can’t conduct deep space refueling from prepositioned caches,” Hwang pointed out.

“True,” Lemuel agreed, still hunched over his palmcomp, “but that’s a reasonable assumption.”

“Why?”

“Well, first off, the Slaasriithi would anticipate that question, right? So they’d build a clue into the graphic that some of these lines were not ‘one-shift transits.’ Maybe put some kind of special marker at the midpoint, where the two shifts would be joined end to end. Secondly, we know that both Slaasriithi and Arat Kur technology are an order of magnitude behind the Dornaani and Ktor. So I think we can project that the Arat Kur shift drive, like ours, depends on stellar gravity wells to function as navigational bookends for each shift. You need to start at one star and end at the other.”

Gaspard had folded his hands. “Mr. Wasserman, it is strategically crucial that we do not underestimate the Arat Kur. But your extrapolation–that they are unable to shift to deep space because we cannot–seems based upon a dangerous presupposition regarding the essential parity of their technology and our own.”

Wasserman’s smile was wolfish. “Wrong–because even the Ktor, who are the second oldest members of the Accord and have had FTL capability for millennia, apparently, can’t pull off deep-space shifts, either.”

Downing blinked. “How can you be sure, Lemuel?”

Wasserman shrugged. “Simple logic. The Dornaani have assured us that they can prevent the Ktor from entering our space. But if the Ktor did have the capacity for deep space navigation, then they could get around the Dornaani by going from one prepositioned deep space fuel cache to another, and show up unannounced in our back yard. And if they did that, then we’d know the Dornaani are liars and wouldn’t support their interests anymore. So, if the Ktoran technology can’t handle deep space shift navigation, then we can be sure as hell that the less advanced races–like the Arat Kur–can’t pull it off, either.”

Downing was determined not to let his admiration for Wasserman’s swift deduction show in his face. “So what can you tell us about their shift range?”

“I’ve run all the stellar pairs that are joined by shift-lines. No distance is greater than nine point five light-years.”

“And what is the shortest distance between any two stars that are not joined by a shift-line?”

“Nine point seven. So their maximum shift range is someplace between nine point five and nine point seven light-years. And that confirms our suspicions that they’re operating at something like our level of technical ability. At least within the same order of magnitude.”

“Equally important,” Downing mused, “it allows us to predict their preferred strategic option.”

“What do you mean by that?” Gaspard asked.

“I am referring to the places they are most likely to attack first.”

“And given that shift range, what do you project as their most likely path of attack?”

“They’d start with Barnard’s Star.”

“And then?”

Downing shrugged. “Why, Earth. Of course.”

 

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