Trojan Horse pt 2
The second part of Trojan Horse.
Aromatic Hydrocarbons of Heaven had been discovered six weeks previously, by the ancient, automated wide-baseline array that kept a wary - and largely ignored - eye on those stars on the other side of the Gulf of Cinders. Exactly what it was, was very difficult to say: all that could be gathered from the telemetry was that it was a massively blue-shifted object, travelling so close to c that it would arrive within a matter of weeks; that it showed no signs of deceleration; that said object came from the other side of the Gulf of Cinders; and that it was very, very big.
None of these facts were exactly cause for jubilation (though there were those of us, and I count myself among them, who were relieved to see the slowly but relentlessly escalating proxy wars of the Nagari and the Inskillin pause as they took stock of this new threat.)
Efforts were made to contact the ship; no reply came, which led to a natural increase in suspicion, and the beginnings of public panic. The panic was partially dispelled when it was noted that - as the ship did not appear to be making any effort to slow itself - it would simply pass through the system, potentially using Kormack's Lesson for a gravitational boost but otherwise interacting with us not at all. But then, the object might not be a ship at all, but simply a very large relativistic weapon (and with it's tau factor, it's mass was on an equal footing with that of a terrestrial planet). And there were those who pointed this out, in tones grim and hysterical and everything in between, seemingly determined to terrify the populace with worst-case doomsday scenarios. Many of the factions worked to suppress such speculations, as best they could; there was no defense against such a weapon, and thus nothing to be gained over such speculations.
As is so often the case, neither scenario turned out to be true. The object did not pass through the system, nor did it impact with Kormack's Lesson. Instead, it simply, incredibly, impossibly came to a dead stop thirty lims below the south pole of Kormack's Lesson.
The ship immediately began to saturate the electromagnetic spectrum with its transmissions. It identified itself as the Aromatic Hydryocarbons of Heaven, apologized for its silence (claiming that the nature of their drive made any attempt at communication through the EM spectrum useless), and claimed to be packed to bursting with desperate refugees. Those comms were jammed after a short period, thanks to a contingency plan put in place by farsighted Inskillin who had prepared to redirect a significant fraction of the suncup's capacity towards just that purpose; but the Omegists had been able to talk for long enough to convince a fair number of people that they deserved, at the very least, a fair hearing; that the danger they posed was not axiomatic.
In the weeks that followed, the Containment Armada had gradually formed around the Aromatic Hydrocarbons of Heaven, composed of ships sent from every military in the system. Getting the ships there was not cheap: the AHoH was off the ecliptic, far away from the interplanetary transport network, and thus expensive in energy. Nevertheless, thousands of ships had come, principally from the Nagari and the Inskillin, but also from the Twessin and the Alsurin, as well as from the numberless sects, trading cooperatives, and ministates that swarmed in the Inner and Outer Belts. Their chief job was to jam any attempts at communication in a more energy efficient manner than simply swamping the AHoH's coms with power beamed from the suncup, but they were also charged with annihilating the vessel should it do anything in the least bit suspicious.
Whether they excercised that responsibility was partly up to me to determine.
Or rather, officially, and publicly. Privately, it was a decision that had already been made.
My presence here was a formality, and a deception, and a sop to the conscience of future generations.
It was also a debasement of every professional ethic I'd ever lived by; but then, there are higher principles in this world than mere ethics. And if my conscience was pained by what I must do, it was salved knowing that I'd chosen this path myself.
The stateroom of the Guns of Normandy was a small chamber, made to seem more spacious than it really was through artful use of holograms: all four walls gave the impression of being open balconies, overlooking Nagar from an altitude so great that the curvature of the surface was marked. Inside, the furnishings were opulent; chairs upholstered in thick brown fur, arranged around an ovoid table of dark mahongany that hung motionless in mid-air, maintaing its position with concealed microthrusters. The floor was a dark red carpet, the ceiling a frieze of a battle carved into marble.
In truth it wasn't large enough to fit more than a dozen people, but then, it didn't need to be. You didn't get inside unless you were a person of importance: a visiting captain or admiral, a ranking politician, or - like me - an Arbiter.
I entered through a circular hatch in the ceiling, allowing the stevedore robots clamped to my limbs to guide me in more or less dignified fashion. The state room was located just behind the bridge, along the ship's axis of rotation. As a consequence, there was no gravity, a condition in which most spacers were entirely comfortable, but in which I was less than graceful. Only two of the chairs were occupied, by elderly men who fell under the first category of those allowed in: one clad in the brilliant red-and-yellow of the Inskillin Navy, resplendant with tattooed insignia and implanted battle-honors, the other in the sober black worn by all Nagari Puritans, the only clue to rank a minute impact ruby set into the simple collar. Beneath their uniforms, though, they couldn't have looked more alike: both spry in their age, with wiry bodies and faces scarred from decades of command. "Metacommander. Over-Admiral," I said, nodding to each in turn, "I never thought to see you sharing a room in peace. It gives me great hope for the future."
Over-Admiral Orkit Markis' only response to my weak attempt at humor was to skewer me with a basilisk stare. Metacommander Yuman Fyell stood, touched his forehead and extended a black-gloved hand, smiling warmly. "Arbiter Sthon. It has been too long since I've had the pleasure. Please, sit."
I touched my own forehead and we clasped wrists. With Markis I exchanged head-bows, ensuring that mine was lower - though not too much lower - than his.
"Would you care for a refreshment?" Fyell asked. "Food? Pharmaceuticals?"
I shook my head. "You know my feelings on indulging any biological impulses while working."
He inclined his head. "Good to see you haven't relaxed your standards since last we dealt, Arbiter."
"I've been at this a long time, Metacommander. I've developed my habits and methods for very good reasons, as I'm sure you know. Besides which," I smiled, "I'm too old to know how to change."
The Metacommander chuckled. "I'm afraid that's a charge that could be applied to every man in this room," he said.
Markis leaned forward. "Enough banter. We all know why we're here. Let's get on with it."
Each man was, as their titles implied, the ranking officer in their respective navies. As those navies happened to be the two most substantial military forces around Kormack's Lesson, that made them the two most powerful men in the amalgamated fleet that had gathered around the Aromatic Hydrocarbons of Heaven. Just a few weeks before, they'd been opponents in the deadly, endless Go tournament of interplanetary power politics. Now a greater threat had forced them together as allies, though it was clear neither trusted the other.
"Actually, Over-Admiral, I'm not sure that we all know why we're here," I remarked pointedly. "If you wish to get down to business, by all means ... but perhaps we should start by ensuring that we all know what that business is."
In truth, I had my suspicions, but nothing concrete had been said. At the mutual requests of the Inskillin Parliament and the Nagari Prelate's Office, I'd travelled out to meet the armada, in order to serve as an intermediary in dividing responsibilities and powers within the allied chain of command. A thankless task, but those negotiations had been finished days ago: the Inskillin had agreed to give the Nagari ultimate primacy, as ultimately they must, though the Nagari had quickened the process by giving trading concessions and a base or two of middling strategic importance in the kuiper belt. Once the two men in this room - as well as the Inskillin Parliament and the Nagari Prelate - had assented to the deal, I'd returned to my yacht, to enjoy a few days of piece and quiet while I prepared myself for my next task, which I already knew (without it being said) would involve the Omegist intruders in some intimate way.
The summons had come over an encrypted channel just a few hours ago. It had requested my presence aboard the Guns of Normandy, at my earliest convencience, and said absolutely nothing about why.
Metacommander Fyell, technically the ranking officer in the room, clasped his hands on the table in front of him, and began. "Arbiter, both our governments are more than satisfied with the deals you've worked out between us. Furthermore, your record speaks for itself: you've averted more wars than most men have even known were in danger of starting. You've worked closely with the governments of Nagar, Inskillis, Alsur, and with numerous smaller states. You've also had extensive experience with the trading cooperatives. Your career is long and illustrious."
I favored the precis of my resume with a single, extended nod, keeping to myself the coda that we were inside a vessel that marked a glaring failure on my part, a fact of which both men were quite aware.
"I mention all of this merely as a way of saying that you are trusted, not just by Nagar and Inskillis, but by almost every faction around Kormack's Lesson. This makes you a very unique individual, Mos Sthon."
"Thank you, Metacommander. I like to think so myself, and am glad to know that my estimation is shared."
"There is one other qualification you have, Arbiter, which the Metacommander is too polite to point out," said Moskin. "And that is, that your faith is not in doubt. It is publicly known to be very strong, and those who know you privately attest to the truth of this."
"Existence is nothing, without faith in the Holy Spirit," I said. "Without it, what purpose love, and life?"
"Just so," said Fyell. "Arbiter, as I'm sure you must know, our presence here cannot be maintained indefinately. One way or another, our foreign visitors must be dealt with."
Markis spoke. "The question is of course precisely how to deal with them. There are those who advocate their immediate destruction. This is one of the very few things that myself and the Over-Admiral see eye to eye on. However it is not our place to make policy, and regrettably, back home there are many who advocate that they be allowed to stay."
"Before we go any further, Arbiter, you should know that this chamber has been completely sealed off for this discussion. All recording devices have been deactivated. Anything said in this room, will stay in this room."
"With that in mind," Fyell said, "We would appreciate if you were to tell us your feelings on this matter."
I nodded. "Frankly, gentlemen, I agree with you. True, my career has been one of defusing tense situations, averting bloodshed whenever possible. Previously, however, all those conflicts - and potential conflicts - have been between people who, regardless of faction, share the same culture and faith. Your own peoples are illustration enough of this: as different as they are, both are without question devoutly Monadic. Now," I shook my head, "We deal with creatures whose very humanity is open to question, so long have they been in thrall to thinking machines. For all we know, they may carry one of those devices with them. The truth is, we know nothing of them, save that millenia ago, our ancestors fought a desperate, destructive war to free themselves of the deilects tyranny, a war from which they didn't even escape with their lives. Whatever they profess to be their purpose in coming here, we cannot now - nor can we ever - rule out the possibility that they are a ploy to subvert us, to weaken us, and eventually to conquer us. If we let such a thing happen, then the Nova War was fought for nothing."
"Strange," Markis said, "To hear a man of peace use such rhetoric. I would have thought you'd be one of those urging tolerance."
"Over-Admiral, everything I have done has been in the service of the people of Kormack's Lesson, whatever their faction. That has been the over-arching theme of my career. Considered in that light, I hope any contradiction between my past actions and my present words will disappear." I sighed. "It's true, many of my supporters are in favor of taking the Omegists at their word and letting them stay. Whether they speak out of idealism, naivete, or simple historical ignorance, I do not know. I suspect a mixture of all three. Regardless, it is a dangerous attitude."
Fyell nodded. "I've known you long enough to know that you're telling the truth, Yeil." He leaned in close, and spoke his next words slowly. "If you accept the offer - in truth, the request - we are about to make, that is a truth you are not to speak ever again, to anyone."
I frowned. "Metacommander?"
"The sad thing is that there are enough people willing to give the Omegists the benefit of the doubt, that our hand is stayed. We can - for now - maintain the interdict, blocking any communications or physical contact, but we cannot simply remove the threat. And we cannot maintain the interdict forever." He paused. "Our governments have urged that we send a diplomatic mission to the Omegists. Preliminary talks with their leaders - that is of course assuming they have leaders - have already begun, though we have kept it very quiet. Nevertheless, they have agreed to allow a single man aboard, leaving open the possibility of letting aboard a larger contingent in exchange for as-yet unspecified concessions."
"And you want me to be that man," I said.
"You are the best choice. However...." he paused, suddenly awkward.
Markis spoke into the silence. "It is important for you to realize, Mos Sthon, that you will not return from this mission. It is a ruse."
"Your purpose will not be to gather information, establish diplomatic relations, or anything of the kind. It will be to convince the Omegists to allow aboard a sizable contingent. Placed within the bodies of members of the contingent will be antilithium charges, of sufficient megatonnage yield to destroy the alien vessel."
"Why the deception? Why not simply destroy them and be done with it?"
"Such a thing is politically impossible, for both our governments. Perhaps more so on Inskillis, where people love peace and the people's will prevails...."
Fyell snorted, and looked about to respond. Instinctively acting to abort the quarrel while still embryonic, I said, "But won't such an act be too obvious? If it's plausible deniability you're looking for, blowing the Omegists up with antimatter is hardly the way to go about it."
"Do you understand their relatavistic drive, Arbiter?" Fyell asked.
"Of course not. No one does."
He nodded, curtly. "Engine trouble. Terrible accident. Most regrettable." His lips quirked into a half-smile. "But, for all that, most convenient."