The Arj was every bit as repulsive as Rasmussen had been warned to expect. Somehow he kept himself from gagging as the thing slithered into the pressurized dome, leaving a glistening silver trail across the metallic floor. Great Galaxy, he could see its floating organs, its branching arteries, its brain. . . correction, brains. Rasmussen swallowed hard. He couldn't help but wonder what it was thinking. Did it feel equally disgusted by their physical appearance? Or was it simply weighing them up as potential foes, considering ways to kill them?
Behind the Arj, visible through the viewports situated around the dome perimeter, starlight illuminated jagged mountain peaks that were alternately hidden then revealed by drifting patches of dense mist. The dome was supposed to offer a neutral environment suitable for both species, but Rasmussen had been warned against opening his visor. The Arj didn't seem to require a pressure suit or any other means of survival. A hardy species, quick to adapt.
Standing beside Rasmussen, Falklan grew tense. His gloved hand strayed to the bolt-gun he wore on his hip.
"Leave it alone, for God's sake," Rasmussen said, his voice a low, urgent whisper. "This is supposed to be a diplomatic mission, not a bloodbath."
"Just wanted to check it was still there," Falklan said, staring at the Arj, and there was no doubt about what thoughts were going through his mind.
They were two entirely different individuals, Thor Rasmussen a Senior Ambassador with Diplomatic Corps, Colonel Brett Falklan a professional soldier serving with STARGUARD. In Rasmussen's opinion it was men like Falklan who seemed bent on prolonging this senseless war with the Arj for the sake of personal glory. Diplomatic Corps had maneuvered the Arj this close to a ceasefire and lasting peace, but STARGUARD refused to let go of this Sector, which bordered on Arj space. With typical belligerence, the military had chosen Falklan as their representative for this meeting"No Surrender" Falklan, who'd already lost half his force and seemed perfectly prepared to throw away the rest.
At last they heard the clicking noises they'd been expecting to hear. The radio code had been developed over a period of years by Human experts and AI language disseminators. Earth and the Arj homeworld had used it to communicate for all of three months before war broke out over possession of relatively insignificant volumes of empty space. Insignificant volumes like this Sector, which in Rasmussen's opinion wasn't worth a single drop of Human blood, never mind thousands of lives.
Rasmussen had studied the radio code extensively. It was one of the reasons why he was here. "The Arj has identified itself as the commander of enemy forces in this Sector," he said. "Your opposite number, apparently."
Falklan's eyes had narrowed into slits as the Arj approached, but now they widened momentarily, showing surprise. "A soldier, not a diplomat," he said. "That should tell us something."
"Oh? What, exactly?"
"They're no more willing to withdraw from this Sector than we are. They intend to keep fighting, despite the lickings we've given them."
Despite the horrendous losses you've taken, Rasmussen thought, remembering the STARGUARD casualty lists he'd reviewed.
More clicking. When it finished, Rasmussen's brain was still turning over, digesting what had been proposed.
"What did it say?" Falklan demanded, radiating impatience.
Rasmussen shook his head. "You may find this difficult to believe, Colonel"
"The Arj do intend to fight, but not in the way you think."
"All right. If they want a fight"
"No, you don't understand. What they're offering isI suppose we'd call it a trial by combat."
"You're right, I don't believe it."
Rasmussen took a deep breath. Falklan's attitude was insufferable. "Colonel, let me spell it out for you," he said. "You have a choice. You either order what's left of your fleet to engage the Arj fleet, accepting God-knows-what additional losses, or you go along with what they are suggesting." He gestured at the alien jellyfish. "Two Arj against two Earthmen. Winner takes all, and I don't just mean this planetoid, I mean the entire Sector. If your men win, the Arj will withdraw. If your men lose, they will expect you to withdraw your forces."
Falklan frowned. "Are you seriously trying to tell me I can trust these aliens? That they'll keep their word if we win this, this trial by combat you're talking about? That they'll just scoot out of this Sector instead of fighting over every planet and moon in a dozen star systems?"
Rasmussen nodded. "From what we know of them, the Arj are an honorable race. In my opinion, they will keep their word. Assuming that your men win, of course."
"Assuming? You're crazy, and so are they."
"Which would you rather lose? Two of your Star Marines, or your entire force? Given your previous record, perhaps that's a redundant question."
Falklan looked at him sharply. Rasmussen didn't bat an eyelid. He'd already made his opinion of Falklan's gung-ho battle tactics clear in his reports, and had called for his dismissal. No doubt Falklan had already received feedback from Earth.
"Did you know the Arj were planning something like this when they requested this meeting?" Falklan said.
Rasmussen hesitated. He could lie, but Falklan might be perceptive enough to read him. "Yes," he said. "When we were on friendlier terms with the Arj we gained access to their history files. There are several recorded instances where the Arj and other races decided to solve long-running disputes by"
Falklan interrupted him. "Okay, okay, I get the picture. Does Diplomatic Corps recommend I accept these terms?"
"It's your decision, Colonel, not ours," Rasmussen said. How he'd fought to take that decision out of Falklan's hands! But the military had insisted Falklan's authority in the matter remain absolute. Damn the man, he'd probably shoot the Arj commander and then order his fleet to attack.
Falklan said, "Very well. Tell it I agree."
Rasmussen sucked in a sharp breath. He hadn't expected Falklan to make his mind up so fast. Or to make this decision. "You're sure?" he said, even as he composed the message on his code machine and checked its authenticity.
"I'm sure," Falklan said.
Rasmussen sent the message, and received a brief clicking acknowledgement from the Arj. The alien immediately began to retreat toward the airlock, leaving a pool of oozing silver behind. Rasmussen shuddered. Moments later the airlock hatch slid shut, thankfully cutting off his view of the Arj.
Falklan tilted his head to one side, listening to something Rasmussen couldn't hear. Rasmussen guessed it must be a message from his ship, coming in over a private military channel.
"The Arj ship is moving out of orbit," Falklan told him.
Rasmussen nodded. "We should return to your ship and set things in motion, Colonel," he said. "Your men will have to come down alone. The Arj will scan the planetoid to make sure we don't send more than two Star Marines. They'll expect us to do the same, of course."
Falklan looked around the empty dome. Rasmussen had no idea what he was thinking. Sometimes Falklan was as hard to understand as the Arj. Rasmussen just wanted to get this over with. As soon as it was settled, one way or the other, Diplomatic Corps could conclude the peace agreement and end the damned war. And then, if he had anything to do with it, Falklan would never be permitted to command again, and that included kitchen detail.
"Colonel, I said we should"
Falklan drew his bolt-gun, spun around and fired a burst at the side of the dome opposite the airlock. The skin shattered and mist boiled through the breach. Rasmussen barely had a chance to react before Falklan grabbed his harness and dragged him toward the ragged hole. Great Galaxy, Falklan had completely lost it! In a couple of seconds he'd have Rasmussen down on his knees, begging for mercythe barrel of his bolt-gun pressed against the side of Rasmussen's helmet, his finger squeezing the triggerrevenge for the report Rasmussen had sent to Earth!
The dome came apart as other weapons opened fire without warning. Falklan dived through the hole, taking Rasmussen with him. The hard impact drove the air from Rasmussen's lungs and left him wheezing and stunned. Falklan rose up onto one knee and fired again, aiming through the collapsing dome. His lips moved behind his visor. Rasmussen thought he'd suddenly gone deaf, but realized his COM must have been knocked off by the impact. He slapped his helmet, not really expecting this to fix the problem, but an instant later he was rewarded by hearing Falklan's terse voice:
"I say again, do not interfere and do not engage the Arj vessel. Break orbit and retire. I'm squirting you a recording of the last ten minutes. I want you to flash-transmit to STARGUARD Command. Whatever happens down here, I want Command to go along with it. Falklan out."
The mist billowed about them. Rasmussen could hardly see beyond the smoking wreckage of the dome. But inhuman shadows were moving around out there, shadows that could only be the Arj. Their weapons flashed, tearing holes in the mist.
Falklan pressed himself flat and crawled alongside Rasmussen. "Time we weren't here," he said.
"Falklan, wait! There's obviously been a mistake. We have to let the Arj know."
"I'd say it's too late for that, Mister Ambassador."
"Falklan, please! We have to tell them you haven't selected your men yet."
Falklan took hold of Rasmussen's pack and began dragging him away from the dome. Rasmussen struggledthen wrapped his arms around his helmet and moaned as the ground around them churned, whipped into frenzy by a ferocious Arj salvo. Falklan's bolt-gun spat flame. The Arj stopped firing and Falklan began dragging him again, no doubt enjoying Rasmussen's humiliation.
They reached a line of rocks large enough to give them some cover. Beyond lay a shallow ravine. Falklan shoved Rasmussen bodily into the ravine, then turned back to shoot at the Arj, discouraging close pursuit.
"You're crazy! You can't take them on and expect to win."
"Watch me," Falklan said.
"Damn you, Falklan, if we survive this, I'll see you're kicked out of STARGUARD."
Falklan turned his head to peer at him around the edge of his visor. "I thought you were planning to do that anyway?"
Rasmussen sucked in a deep breath. "Is that what this is all about? You want to get me killed because I shafted you?"
Falklan opened fire again, then ducked as Arj energy-bolts tore at the edge of the ravine. He shuffled further along, ignoring Rasmussen, intent upon the firefight.
Rasmussen took stock of the situation. He was caught up in the middle of Falklan's battle, but there was an easy way out. Their orbit-to-surface lander lay half a klick to the north. He was sure he could find it. Using the OSL's autopilot, he could blast off into the relative safety of space. Falklan's warship would respond to his distress signal and pick him up. But first he'd have to get away from Falklan. Damn the man! Rasmussen was no soldier! He didn't have military training, didn't even have a weapon. If Falklan insisted upon slugging it out with the Arj instead of requesting a temporary truce so they could explain the mistake, that was his problem. He'd have to fight them alone.
The ravine they were lying in stretched away in either direction. Falklan's entire attention was focused on the Arj. Rasmussen decided he might never get a better chance. He took a deep breath and started crawling along the ravine, heading north toward the unseen lander.
He'd gone perhaps a hundred paces when the ravine abruptly stopped. Dead end. He climbed up the side, peered over the edge, and almost fainted. There, not twenty paces from him, was an Arj, perched upon a rocky outcrop. Two of itstentacles?were wrapped around a silver rod which Rasmussen assumed must be a weapon. The rod discharged crimson light in Falklan's direction. Rasmussen ducked down, more terrified than he'd ever been before in his life. He forced himself to look over the edge again. The Arj moved off, gliding effortlessly over the rocks. Rasmussen crawled out of the ravine and headed in the opposite direction, moving quickly but carefully in the low gravity.
After what seemed like an age, the OSL loomed out of the mist ahead. The sight of the cone-shaped craft, with its half-dozen solid fuel lifting rockets, should have filled him with relief. Instead he crouched down instinctively. The second Arj was halfway up the OSL's ladder. Had it seen him? Rasmussen had no way of knowing. He shifted position just as the Arj's weapon flashed. The energy-bolt that would have melted Rasmussen's helmet and boiled his brains blew a boulder to fragments instead. Rasmussen scrambled to his feet and began running. How fast could the Arj move? For all he knew it was ideally suited to the terrain; it could be coming after him like a locomotive at full speed.
He leaped over boulders, zigzagged between broken towers of black rockthen tripped and fell headlong. He rolled over onto his back and looked around, his ragged breath misting his visor. Where was the Arj? Nowhere to be seen. He pushed himself up, staring in horror at the thing he'd tripped over. Only for a moment did he think it was a live Arj. It turned out to be a transparent sac, split down the middle, the tentacles curled in upon themselves and grotesquely shriveled.
And, leading away from the sac, in opposite directions, were at least two sets offootprints?
No one knew how the Arj reproduced. Now Rasmussen had a good idea, and it gave him major cause for concern. One Arj had suddenly split into two or more Arj. That meant he couldn't return to the OSL and blast offone of them might be waiting there for him to show up. His best bet, like it or not, was to find Falklan and hope that somehow, against all odds, Falklan might defeat the aliens.
"Falklan, can you hear me?" he said, hoping his radio signal would reach Falklan, wherever he was. "Falklan, there may be more than two of them. I say again, there may be more than two Arj. Watch out for"
A tentacled nightmare emerged out of the mist. The Arj he'd seen at the OSL. It pointed its weapon at him. Rasmussen took a running jump over the nearest boulder, which exploded behind him. Fragments of flying rock struck his pack with enough force to spin him around and send him tumbling. A crevice yawned beneath him, previously hidden by the mist. He yelled as he began sliding down the steep slope, unable to stop himself. Rocks fell with him and after him, becoming a miniature avalanche.
The crevice floor rose up and hit him hard. He lay there for a while, stunned. Every bone in his body had to be broken. Gradually he flexed his fingers, his wrists, his arms. Did the same for his toes, feet, legs. By a miracle, he still had the use of his limbs. The pain began to recede. When he finally opened his eyes he saw his own blood spattered across the inside of his visor, bright red and bubbling. . . . Cracked visor! He was no spaceman, but at least he knew where the patches were kept. His clumsy fingers opened the pocket on his right thigh and pulled out one of the tubes. He brought it up to his visor and squeezed it convulsively. Thick gunk splashed over his visor and hardened instantly, sealing the crack. Rasmussen sighed with relief as the winking red pressure loss warning light along the top rim of his visor went out. But the LED beside this indicated his air supply had fallen to 20 percent. That meant his pack must have been ruptured, either by flying rock or by the fall. Only 20 percent. . . in fifteen minutes from now, maybe less, he'd be gasping for air.
He knew the Arj was watching him from above. Rasmussen lay perfectly still, pretending to be dead, praying the Arj would go away. If it thought he was dead then it would have no reason to return to the OSL. It would go after Falklan insteadit, and the others. He'd have to abandon Falklan. He'd warned Falklan as best he could, hadn't he? Falklan's warship would have picked up Rasmussen's desperate transmission, so there was a record of how he'd tried to help. Now it was every man for himself.
The Arj shuffled away from the edge of the crevice. Rasmussen waited for a count of twenty, just to be sure, then pushed himself up and looked for a way out.
There wasn't any. The sides of the crevice were almost sheer. If not for the low gravity the fall would have injured or killed him instead of just cracking his visor. He was trapped in a narrow prison, surrounded by thirty-meter-high walls, without any tools to cut handholds in the rock. How high could he jump? Not high enough.
A burst of light illuminated the top of the crevice. An Arj energy weapon, or Falklan's bolt-gun? Rasmussen held his breath. The answer came soon enough, when a line dropped down from above. Rasmussen took hold of it, braced one foot against the wall and began climbing. When he finally reached the lip, an eternity later, he pulled himself up and over, gasping with the effort.
The Arj that had chased him over the edge of the crevice lay ten paces away, a deflated balloon blackened by gunfire. Falklan lay beside the alien. He'd hooked the end of the line onto his harness to make himself into a living anchor. Rasmussen crawled to him and noticed the puncture patches Falklan had slapped across his own torso. He'd been hit. How badly was anybody's guess; Rasmussen couldn't very well open up Falklan's starsuit to find out. He picked up Falklan's bolt-gun and stared at the glowing red light on the butt. The charge pack was exhausted. He couldn't see spares in any of Falklan's harness pouches. He threw the weapon away, angry and frightened at the same time.
Rasmussen knew he couldn't possibly carry Falklan to the OSL, not while the Arj were hunting them both. Then again, maybe the Arj had identified Falklan as the dangerous onemaybe they'd decide to ignore Rasmussen and hunt Falklan instead?
He thought about it for all of ten seconds, then carefully lifted Falklan's limp body, settled him across his shoulders as best he could, and began walking toward the OSL.
As the minutes passed, he became aware that the Arj were moving parallel with him. He counted three, then four, then five. Another pair appeared up ahead. They were much smaller than the one he'd faced in the pressure dome, and only appeared to possess one brain apiece. Rasmussen swallowed hard. The original Arj must havereproduced? Multiplied? Whatever the term, he assumed this must have been their plan all along, that the formal rules of their damned two-against-two trial by combat contained certain legal loopholes. Maybe the loopholes mattered to them, but they didn't matter to Rasmussen. As far as he was concerned the Arj were cheats, plain and simple. He was willing to bet that Falklan could have taken the two original Arj out on his own, especially if he hadn't been encumbered by an unarmed and thoroughly useless diplomat.
As he approached the OSL, Rasmussen thought fast. Maybe if he put Falklan down, he could draw the Arj away. Falklan might just have enough strength to board the OSL and escape on his own. Rasmussen shook his head. Crazy plan. Even if Falklan were conscious, he probably wouldn't run away. He wasn't like Rasmussen.
The Arj closed in on him, aiming their silver rod weapons, assured of an easy victory. All Rasmussen could do was bare his teeth and show them how Earthmen died.
"Get down!" a voice said, an urgent whisper that echoed in Rasmussen's helmet speakers, startling him.
And then all hell broke loose as armored Star Marines erupted out of the ground itself and opened fire at the Arj at point blank range, their bolt-guns flaring. Rasmussen dropped, covering Falklan's body with his own. The Arj disintegrated before his eyes, pieces of gray blubbery flesh flying off in all directions, their silver weapons discharging into the sky. The last Arj fell, blasted to bits. Burning chunks of alien matter rained down as the Star Marines moved forward, quartering the area. Their no-nonsense attitude told Rasmussen that if there were any more Arj on the planetoid, they'd be ruthlessly hunted down and exterminated.
A Star Marine corporal and a medic pulled Rasmussen off Falklan. Rasmussen sat on a rock, bemused, not quite knowing what was going on. The medic attached an autodoc to Falklan's starsuit and gave a thumbs-up to the corporal, signifying Falklan was alive.
Only then did the corporal pay any attention to Rasmussen.
"Are you injured, Mister Ambassador?"
Rasmussen shook his head. "No. My pack's damaged but I'm okay. Air's good for another ten minutes. Where in the Galaxy did you come from?"
The Star Marine corporal didn't take his eyes off the horizon as he spoke. "We were deployed here two months ago from a stealth transport. Came down on paragliders. We cut foxholes, covered ourselves over and went into coldsleep." Seeing Rasmussen's confusion, he added, "Our starsuits have cryogenic capability."
Rasmussen figured it out for himself. The Arj wouldn't have been able to detect the buried, frozen Star Marines from orbit. As far as they were concerned, he and Falklan were the only Humans on the planetoid. But how could the Star Marines have known, two months ago. . . ?
"Colonel Falklan activated a transponder to bring us out of coldsleep," the corporal said, completing the picture.
"That I did," Falklan said. His eyes were open. Rasmussen went down on one knee beside him.
"You set this up, didn't you?" Rasmussen said.
"Of course I did."
"You knew the Arj would propose the trial by combat. How?"
Falklan snorted. "You think Diplomatic Corps has a monopoly on understanding the Arj? We fully expected them to offer their trial by combat, rather than lose any more ships. The trick was being ready for them when it happened."
Rasmussen thought about it. "All right. That explains your putting Star Marines down here. But how could you be sure we would end in this exact spot, within range of your men? The Arj might not have behaved as you expected. They could have killed us both."
Falklan grunted as the medic inserted something into his arm via an eyelet in his starsuit. "Corporal, tell him," he said.
The corporal grinned. "There are five hundred strike teams scattered across this planetoid. Two thousand Star Marines, just waiting for the Colonel to whistle. No matter where you were, some of us would have popped up within shooting range."
"And the same goes for the other nine planetoids the Arj were most likely to choose for their so-called 'diplomatic meeting'," Falklan said.
Rasmussen shook his head, unable to believe the magnitude of Falklan's deception. Ten planetoidstwo thousand Star Marines hidden on each. The STARGUARD casualty lists he'd reviewed had been a complete fabrication.
"What are you looking so upset about?" Falklan said. "The Arj ship is too far away to confirm exactly what happened. All they know is, it was two of them against two of us and we beat them, despite the little surprise they pulled."
"And I thought they were cheats," Rasmussen said sourly.
"Cheats? You make it sound like a game. We've just claimed a sizable chunk of space that keeps our forces within jump range of the Arj frontier bases, while denying them the opportunity to launch attacks against Earth."
Rasmussen digested this information, and compared it with what he'd been told. Maybe Diplomatic Corps didn't know as much as it thought it did about the Arj. He'd have to rectify that situation when he returned to Earth.
"It looks like you've got exactly what you wanted," he said. "The war goes on. The Arj will never make peace with us now."
The medic did something else. Falklan closed his eyes again. "You've got it all wrong," he said. "The Arj will be asking for terms within a week. They can't afford not to. They know we can hit them any time we like." He sighed. "That's the whole point, don't you see? Why else do you think they insisted on holding onto this Sector? The war's over. They gambled and they lost."
Rasmussen simply stared at him, not understanding. And then, gradually, the full impact of Falklan's statement hit him.
"You mean to tell me that while we were negotiating peace with the Arj, they were planning to attack us?"
Falklan was watching him, a gleam of amusement in his eye. "You catch on fast, Mister Ambassador."
A MEDVAC deltawing came in low and fast, the glare from its braking jets illuminating the planetoid's bleak surface. Medics carrying a stretcher came down the nose airlock ramp.
"It could easily have gone wrong," Rasmussen said softly. "Your wounds are proof of that. You took quite a risk, Colonel."
"Sometimes you have to take risks," Falklan said. "But we had an advantage, too. The Arj thought they were smarter than us." He smiled for the first time. "Bad mistake. Against Human cunning, they didn't stand a chance."