Trial By Fire – Snippet 40

This book should be available now so this is the last snippet.

Trial By Fire – Snippet 40

One final scan of the blackness beyond the window showed him what had to be a shift carrier, far “above” him. The traffic, the coveys of protective drones, the PDF turrets: everything told him it was an Arat Kur military vessel of extreme importance. But rather than having a main weapon built along the length of its hull, this one had a detachable spinal mount: a narrow oblong that had been affixed atop the keel, but was not integral to it.

Each ship’s subsections were modular, which made every ship a reconfiguration of interchangeable elements. The only exception was the smooth-hulled shift cruiser that he had seen closely–once–after being rescued from the hab module off the shoulder of Barney Deucy. Streamlined, radically different in design and appearance, it had looked like a craft out of place within its own fleet. Judging from the shift-cruiser’s retractable weapons blisters, sensor clusters, integral spinal weapon, and in-hull weapon and vehicle bays, it was also the only one that had been built expressly for the purpose of waging war.

A whole invasion fleet–and only one model of ship that was built for the sole purpose of waging war.

Which was, on reflection, consistent with Darzhee Kut’s claim that the Arat Kur had been without war for many centuries. Hardly unusual, then, that they did not have warships, any more than they had a standing fleet. Probably, for them, retaining provisions for war-making was a troublesome business necessitated solely by the existence of their unpredictable neighbors.

As the CoDevCo shuttle sped down toward the clouds, its nose pitching up into an atmobraking attitude, Caine caught sight of the hulking body armor of the two Hkh’Rkh, who were strapped in alongside his Arat Kur warders in their articulated combat suits. One race knew no war; the other knew nothing but. Strange allies.

Or, perhaps, he thought, estranged allies.

*   *   *

As the shuttle emerged from the monsoon clouds hanging thick and low over the island of Java, Caine felt his breath catch involuntarily. Black plumes, some rising up from immense fires clearly visible at their three-kilometer altitude, dotted the landscape. The largest of the conflagrations was located five kilometers west of the chaotic, sprawling, sea-hugging metroplex that was Jakarta itself. The shuttle sheared away even farther from that tower of smoke, just as a brace of nonhuman air vehicles swept over them, firing missiles as they headed groundside, forward thrusters beginning to rotate into a VTOL attitude.

Across the aisle, Eimi Singh put a hand to her small earbud, then turned to Urzueth. “I am sorry, esteemed Administrator Urzueth, but Soekarno spaceport remains unavailable. We will have to divert to a direct landing in our compound.”

Caine stared at Urzueth. “A most interesting way to not invade a planet.”

Urzueth glanced out the window, then back at Caine. The unreadable Arat Kur features did not change for a full two seconds. Then, the mandibles became animated again. “Caine Riordan, you misperceive. These fires you see, we did not cause them.”

“So those attack craft heading planetside belong to someone else?”

“Oh, no, they are ours, but they are responding to requests for assistance. From the human government.”

Caine felt slightly nauseous. “The human government?”

“Yes, President Ruap’s provisional Indonesian government.”

Eimi leaned in with a shy, apologetic smile. “The destruction you see is the work of renegade army units. They have severely damaged Soekarno Spaceport. They have disabled various utilities, and as if to prove their bestiality, have actually attacked and destroyed countless food warehouses.”

“And how long has this ‘rebellion’ been going on?” Caine asked, his throat dry.

“Four days,” answered Eimi.

Caine looked at Urzueth. “And how long ago did your first ‘advisors’ and ‘security consultants’ start landing?”

Urzueth eyes seemed to tighten in their ridged settings. “Five days ago.”

Caine leaned back in his chair. “I am guessing that would be shortly after Mr. Ruap’s coup began.”

Eimi shook her head. “Oh, there was no coup. Mr. Ruap was compelled to take control of the government when the last president was assassinated and the new leadership refused to acknowledge the rights granted to CoDevCo regarding the mass driver site.”

Caine studied Ms. Singh narrowly. “And what rights would those be?”

“Full legal possession of the site itself, including complete autonomy to authorize air traffic of any origins into or out of the mass driver facilities.”

Caine smiled. “Let me guess. The old leadership objected to ‘air traffic’ from the Arat Kur fleet. Specifically, troop landers.”

Urzueth bobbed. “Yes, now you understand.”

Caine looked out the window at the smoke- and fire-scarred patchwork quilt that comprised the coastal flats of Java. “Oh yes, I understand perfectly. And I have also learned another quirky difference between our languages, Esteemed Urzueth.”

“And what is that?”

“Those whom you call ‘renegade rebels,’ we call ‘resistance fighters.'”

*   *   *

The CoDevCo shuttle, engaging its VTOL thrusters as it glided smoothly over the dingy, cockeyed checkerboard of Jakarta’s rooftops, dropped suddenly lower.

The civilians in the craft–Urzueth and Eimi Singh–grasped at the seat-backs in front of them as if to arrest their fall. The military types–the Arat Kur guards and the Hkh’Rkh “security advisors”–simply swayed in their seats. Caine discovered that he now fell into the latter category: he reflexively distinguished the quick drop as a maneuver, not a loss of control.

“What is the problem?” Eimi almost stammered into her collarcom.

The pilot’s answer came over the cabin PA. “Apologies to all. We’ve just been told we are not cleared to land at CoDevCo’s rooftop vertipads. We’re going to have to wait until we can be a assured of a safe approach to the ground pads.”

“Why?” Eimi asked her collarcom. Whatever answer she got was sent privately to her earbud. Caine leaned over, raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

“A disturbance down in the city,” she explained with an apologetic smile. “It seems the rebels have sent professional agitators into the streets and have managed to stir up some of the people against the government. That makes it harder for our associates’ airborne surveillance assets”–she smiled quickly at Urzueth–“to detect threats in advance.”

“What kind of threats?”

“Well,” she said, her reply punctuated by a nervous flutter of her eyelids, “some of the rebels are said to have to have rockets.”

Caine pointed at a crowd-filling square not far below them, near some kind of railway station. “Down there, you mean?”

“No,” corrected Eimi. “That’s just one of the riots stirred up by the agitators. The actual rebels are much fewer in number. But some of them are engaged with our forces north of here. So we shall stay low, where they cannot detect and target us.”

Caine hoped Eimi and the pilot were right about that assumption. If these “rebels” had laid hold of any reasonably modern AA systems, they would be capable of both designating targets and launching missiles from non-line-of-sight vantage points. He looked north. Tilt rotor VTOLs the size of small cars–and of distinctly nonhuman design–darted and weaved over the ramshackle roofscape. Smoke rose from the street. AA rockets went skyward between the billowing black plumes, vectoring toward the VTOLs. All but one of the rockets exploded in midair, apparently intercepted by active counterfire systems onboard the ROVs or possibly from some rear area support position. However, one rocket did find its mark. It clipped the side of a dodging VTOL, the blast taking out one of the rotors. The crippled alien craft faltered down toward the street, another rotor now wobbling.

The shuttle’s main engines cut out, ending its forward movement. But in the moment of comparative silence as its vertical thrusters rose to full power, Caine heard an uneven susurration almost directly below. Looking down, he discovered that the source of the ragged murmur was the rioting crowd, its distant roar now drowned out by the whine of the shuttle’s VTOL turbofans.

At the west end of the square in which the crowd had gathered, lines of troops began to emerge from an old squat stone building: probably a bank or armory or museum before being converted into fortified barracks. The troops came out the front door in two perfect lines, quickly forming a dull gray bulwark along the western edge of the square. As they grew in number, filling in from the back and pushing forward, the crowd shoved back, becoming more agitated. Their previously stationary placards were now waving and shaking like battle flags. A number of the more agile protestors had shinnied up lampposts, clambered onto kiosks, some shouting slogans with the aid of bullhorns and portable sound systems.

The gray ranks facing them were eerily uniform: each soldier was of identical height, wearing identical equipment. None had donned riot gear. Their rifles were at the ready, stocks tucked against their hips, barrels slightly raised.

The crowd reacted to these unresponsive serried ranks with even greater agitation. It seemed to surge and pulsate like a distempered unicellar organism, uncertain of its next action. Then, two almost invisible objects–bricks, possibly, from their angular outlines–crossed the gap from the restless social amoeba and disappeared into the ranks of the motionless, identical soldiers.

Their response was immediate. The muzzles of the lead rank came up and sparkled. Caine heard what sounded like a distant ripping of cardboard. As if being melted away by acid, the facing side of the social amoeba began to evaporate, leaving an irregular stain of heaped bodies to mark the prior limit of its outer membrane.

At the other end of the wounded organism, the cytoplasmic crowd started bleeding out into every street and alley that led away from the square, the body of protest deflating and ultimately disappearing–

Except for those heaped corpses whose own blood had begun to paint the streets of Jakarta with a black-red stain. Which–even if today’s late-afternoon rainstorm washed it away–promised to live on in the memory of those hundreds who had been there, and those thousands to whom they told their tale.

As Caine watched, a small, stick-thin figure–maybe a young teen, maybe an elderly person–crawled out of the tangle of bodies, dragging useless legs.

The shuttle rose slightly and resumed its forward progress. “Final approach,” announced Eimi buoyantly.

Caine watched the faltering stick-figure pulling itself away on weakening arms until he couldn’t see it anymore.

 

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