The eleventh episode of The Human Division, John Scalzi's new thirteen-episode novel in the world of his bestselling Old Man's War. Beginning on January 15, 2013, a new episode of The Human Division will appear in e-book form every Tuesday.
A secret backdoor meeting between Ambassador Ode Abumwe and the Conclave's Hafte Sorvalh turns out to be less than secret as both of their ships are attacked. It's a surprise to both teams—but it's the identity of the attacker that is the real surprise, and suggests a threat to both humanity and The Conclave.
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The Human Division #11
A Problem of Proportion
By John Scalzi
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
Episode Eleven: A Problem of Proportion
Captain Sophia Coloma's first thought at registering the missile bearing down on the Clarke was, This again. Her second was to yell at Helmsman Cabot for evasive action. Cabot responded admirably, slamming the ship into avoidance mode and launching the ship's countermeasures. The Clarke groaned at the sudden change of vector; the artificial gravity indulged a moment where it felt as if the field would snap and every unsecured object on the Clarke would launch toward the top bulkheads at a couple hundred kilometers an hour.
The gravity held, the ship dove in physical space and the countermeasures dazzled the missile into missing its quarry. It blasted past the Clarke and immediately began searching for its target as it did.
"The missile is Acke make," Cabot said, reading the data on his console. "The Clarke's got its transmitter in memory. Unless they've changed it up, we can keep it confused."
"Two more missiles launched and targeting," Executive Officer Neva Balla said. "Impact in sixty-three seconds."
"Same make," Cabot said. "Jamming them now."
"Which ship is shooting at us?" Coloma asked.
"It's the smaller one," Balla said.
"What's the other one doing?" Coloma asked.
"Firing on the first ship," Balla said.
Coloma pulled up a tactical image on her console. The smaller ship, a long needle with a bulbous engine compartment far aft and a smaller bulb forward, remained a mystery to the Clarke's computer. The larger ship, however, resolved to the Nurimal, a frigate of Lalan manufacture.
A Conclave warship, in other words.
Damn it, Coloma thought. We fell right into the trap.
"These new missiles aren't responding to jamming," Cabot said.
"Evade," Coloma said.
"They're tracking our moves," Cabot said. "They're going to hit."
"That frigate is moving its port beam guns," Coloma said. "They're swinging our way."
The Conclave thought that other ship was us, Coloma thought. Fired on it, it fired back. When we showed up, it fired on us as a matter of defense.
Now the Nurimal knew who the real enemy was and wasn't wasting any time dealing with it.
So much for diplomacy, Coloma thought. Next life, I'm getting a ship with guns.
The Nurimal fired its particle beam weapons. Focused, high-energy beams lanced forward and tunneled into their targets.
The missiles heading for the Clarke exploded kilometers out from the ship. The first missile, now wandering aimlessly nearly a hundred klicks from the Clarke, was vaporized mere seconds thereafter.
"That ... was not what I was expecting," Balla said.
The Nurimal swung its beam weapons around, focusing them on the third ship, lancing that ship's engine pod. The ship's engines shattered, severing from the ship proper. The forward portions of the ship went dark, power lost, and began spinning with the angular momentum gained by the force of the engine compartment eruption.
"Is it dead?" Coloma asked.
"It's not firing at us anymore, at least," said Cabot.
"I'll take that," Coloma said.
"The Clarke's identified the other ship," Balla said.
"It's the Nurimal," Coloma said. "I know."
"Not that one, ma'am," Balla said. "The one it just wrecked. It's the Urse Damay. It's an Easo corvette that was turned over to Conclave diplomatic service."
"What the hell is it doing firing on us?" Cabot asked.
"And why is the Nurimal firing on it?" said Coloma.
"Captain," Orapan Juntasa, the communications and alarm officer, said. "We're being hailed by the Nurimal. The person hailing us says they are the captain." Juntasa was silent for a moment, listening. Her eyes got wide.
"What is it?" Coloma asked.
"They say they want to surrender to us," Juntasa said. "To you."
Coloma was silent for a minute at this.
"Ma'am?" Juntasa said. "What do I tell the Nurimal?"
"Tell them we've received their message and to please wait," Coloma said. She turned to Balla. "Get Ambassador Abumwe up here right now. She's the reason we're here in the first place. And bring Lieutenant Wilson, too. He's actual military. I don't know if I can accept a surrender. I'm pretty sure he can."
* * *
Hafte Sorvalh was tall, tall even for a Lalan, and as such would have difficulty navigating the short and narrow corridors of the Clarke. As a courtesy to her, the negotiations for the surrender of the Nurimal were held in the Clarke shuttle bay. Sorvalh was accompanied by Puslan Fotew, captain of the Nurimal, who did not appear in the least bit pleased to be on the Clarke, and Muhtal Worl, Sorvalh's assistant. On the human side were Coloma, Abumwe, Wilson and Hart Schmidt, whom Wilson had requested and Abumwe had acceded to. They were arrayed at a table hastily acquired from the officers mess. Chairs were provided for all; Wilson guessed they might be of slightly less utility for the Lalans, based on their physiology.
"We have an interesting situation before us," Hafte Sorvalh said, to the humans. Her words were translated by a small machine she wore as a brooch. "One of you is the captain of this ship. One of you is the head of this ship's diplomatic mission. One of you" — she nodded at Wilson — "is a member of the Colonial Union's military. To whom shall my captain here surrender?"
Coloma and Abumwe looked over to Wilson, who nodded. "I am Lieutenant Wilson of the Colonial Defense Forces," he said. "Captain Coloma and Ambassador Abumwe are members of the Colonial Union's civil government, as is Mr. Schmidt here." He nodded at his friend. "The Nurimal is a Conclave military ship, so we have decided that as a matter of protocol, I would be the person for whom it would be appropriate to surrender."
"Only a lieutenant?" Sorvalh said. Wilson, who was not an expert on Lalan physiology, nevertheless suspected she was wearing an amused expression. "I'm afraid it might be a little embarrassing for my captain to surrender to someone of your rank."
"I sympathize," Wilson said, and then went off script. "And if I may, Ambassador Sorvalh —"
"Councillor Sorvalh would be more accurate, Lieutenant," Sorvalh said.
"If I may, Councillor Sorvalh," Wilson corrected, "I would ask why your captain seeks to surrender at all. The Nurimal clearly outmatches the Clarke militarily. If you wished it, you could blow us right out of the sky."
"Which is precisely why I ordered Captain Fotew to surrender her vessel to you," Sorvalh said. "To assure you that we pose not the smallest threat to you."
Wilson glanced over to Captain Fotew, rigid and formal. The fact that she was ordered to surrender explained a lot, about both Fotew's attitude at the moment and the relationship between Fotew and Sorvalh. Wilson could not see Captain Coloma accepting an order from Ambassador Abumwe to surrender her ship; there might be blood on the floor after such a request. "You could have made that point much more clear if you had not housed your diplomatic mission to us in a warship," Wilson pointed out.
"Ah, but if we had done that, you would be dead," Sorvalh said.
Fair point, Wilson thought. "The Urse Damay is a Conclave ship," he said.
"It was," Sorvalh said. "Technically, I suppose it still may be. Nevertheless, when it attacked your ship — and also the Nurimal — it was under the command of neither the Conclave nor its military, nor was it crewed by citizens of the Conclave."
"What proof do you offer for this assertion?" Wilson asked.
"At the moment, none," Sorvalh said. "As I have none to offer. That may come in the future, as these discussions progress. In the meantime, you have my word, whatever that will be worth to you at the moment."
Wilson glanced over to Abumwe, who gave him a small nod. He turned to Captain Fotew. "With all due respect, Captain, I cannot accept your surrender," he said. "The Colonial Union and the Conclave are not in a state of war, and your military actions, as best I can see, were at no point directed toward the Clarke specifically nor at the Colonial Union generally. Indeed, your actions and the actions of your crew saved the Clarke and the lives of its crew and passengers. So while I reject your surrender, I offer you my thanks."
Fotew stood there a moment, blinking. "Thank you, Lieutenant," she said, finally. "I accept your thanks and will share it with my crew."
"Very well done," Sorvalh said, to Wilson. She turned to Abumwe. "For a military officer, he's not a bad diplomat."
"He has his moments, Councillor," Abumwe said.
"If I may, what are we doing about the Urse Damay?" Coloma said. "It's damaged, but it's not entirely dead. It still represents a threat to both our ships."
Sorvalh nodded to Fotew, who addressed Coloma. "The Urse Damay had missile launchers bolted on to it, holding nine missiles," she said. "Three of them were sent at you. Three of them were sent at us. The remaining three have our weapons trained on them. If they were fired, they would be destroyed before they were launched out of their tubes. That is if the Urse Damy had enough power to target either of our ships or fire the missiles at all."
"Have you made contact with the ship?" Coloma asked.
"We ordered its surrender and offered to rescue its crew," Fotew said. "We have heard nothing from it since our battle. We have done nothing else pending our surrender to you."
"If Lieutenant Wilson had accepted our surrender, then it would have been you who would have to coordinate the rescue," Sorvalh said.
"If there were someone still alive on that ship, they would have signaled us by now," Fotew said. "Us or you. The Urse Damay is dead, Captain."
Coloma quieted, dissatisfied.
"How will you explain this incident?" Abumwe asked Sorvalh.
"How do you mean?" Sorvalh replied.
"I mean each of our governments have agreed that this discussion of ours is not actually taking place," Abumwe said. "If even a discussion is not taking place, I would imagine an actual military battle will be hard to explain."
"The military battle will not be hard to handle politically," Sorvalh said. "The surrender, however, would have been difficult to explain away. Another reason for us to be grateful of the politic choices of your Lieutenant Wilson here."
"If you are so grateful, then perhaps you can give us the answer we came here to get," Abumwe said.
"What answer is that?" Sorvalh said.
"Why the Conclave is targeting and attacking Colonial Union ships," Abumwe said.
"How very interesting," Sorvalh said. "Because we have the very same question for you, about our ships."
* * *
"There have been sixteen ships gone missing in the last year," Colonel Abel Rigney explained to Abumwe. He and Abumwe were in the office of Colonel Liz Egan, who sat with them at her office's conference table. "Ten of them in the last four months."
"What do you mean by 'gone missing'?" Abumwe asked. "Destroyed?"
"No, just gone," Rigney said. "As in, once they skipped they were never heard from again. No black boxes, no skip drones, no communication of any sort."
"And no debris?" Abumwe asked.
"None that we could find, and no gas clouds of highly vaporized ships, either," Egan said. "Nothing but space."
Abumwe turned her attention back to Rigney. "These were Colonial Defense Forces ships?"
"No," Rigney said. "Or more accurately, not anymore. The ships that have disappeared were all decommissioned former CDF ships, repurposed for civilian uses. Like the Clarke, your ship, was formerly a CDF corvette. Once a ship outlives its usefulness to the CDF, we sell them to individual colonies for local government services, or to commercial concerns who specialize in intercolonial shipping."
"The fact that they were nonmilitary is why we originally didn't notice," Egan said. "Civilian and commercial ships sometimes go missing just as a matter of course. A skip is improperly inputted, or they're prey for raiders or pirates, or they're employed to carry a wildcat colony someplace a wildcat colony shouldn't be and they get shot up. The Colonial Union tracks all legal shipping and travel in Colonial space, so we note when a ship is destroyed or goes missing. But we don't necessarily note what kind of ship it is, or in this case was."
"It wasn't until some nerd handling ship registrations noted that a specific type of ship was going missing that we paid attention," Rigney said. "And sure enough, he was right. All the ships on this list are decommissioned frigates or corvettes. All of them were decommissioned in the last five years. Most of them disappeared in systems near Conclave territory."
Abumwe frowned. "That doesn't sound like the Conclave's way of doing things," she said. "They won't let us colonize anymore, but beyond that they haven't recently been openly antagonistic towards the Colonial Union. They don't need to be."
"We agree," Egan said. "But there are reasons for the Conclave to want to attack the Colonial Union. They are massively larger than we are, but we still nearly managed to destroy them not all that long ago."
Abumwe nodded. She remembered the CDF destruction of the Conclave fleet over Roanoke Colony and how that pushed the entire Colonial Union to the brink of war with the much larger, much angrier alien confederation.
What saved the Colonial Union, ironically enough, had been the fact that the Conclave's leader and founder, General Tarsem Gau, had managed to quell a rebellion and keep the Conclave intact — a not exactly small irony considering the CDF's goal was to topple Gau.
"Gau certainly has reasons for wanting the Colonial Union out of the picture," Abumwe said. "I'm not sure how making a few decommissioned former warships disappear will accomplish that."
"We're not sure about it ourselves," Rigney said. "The ships are useless as warships now; we've removed all weapons and defense systems. The ships couldn't have been confused with CDF ships still in service. Making them disappear does nothing to reduce our military capability at all."
"There's another possibility," Egan said. "One I think is more likely, personally. And that is that the Conclave isn't behind the disappearances at all. Someone else is, and trying to make it look like it's the Conclave in the hopes of pushing them and us into another conflict."
"All right," Abumwe said. "Explain what this has to do with me."
"We need to establish a back channel to the Conclave about this," Rigney said. "If they are behind it, we need to tell them that we won't tolerate it, in a way that doesn't let our other enemies know where our military resources might become focused. If they aren't behind it, then it's to our mutual benefit to discover who is — again, as quietly as possible."
"You're getting the job because, to be blunt about it, you already know that someone or some group has been trying to sabotage the Colonial Union's dealings with other species and governments," Egan said. "We don't need to read you in, and we know you and your people can keep your mouths shut."
Abumwe gave a wry half smile. "I appreciate your candor," she said.
"You are also good at what you do," Egan said. "To be clear. But discretion is of particular value in this case."
"I understand," Abumwe said. "How do you want me to approach the task? I don't have any direct contacts with the Conclave, but I know someone who might."
"Your Lieutenant Wilson?" Egan said.
Abumwe nodded. "He knows John Perry personally," she said, naming the former CDF major who took refuge with the Conclave after the events of Roanoke Colony and then took an alien trade fleet to Earth and informed that planet of their lopsided relationship with the Colonial Union. "It's not a connection I'm keen on exploiting, but it's one I can use if necessary."
"It won't be necessary," Rigney said. "We have a direct line to one of General Gau's inner circle. A councillor named Sorvalh."
"How do we know her?" Abumwe asked.
"After the unpleasantness with Major Perry showing up over Earth with a Conclave trade fleet, General Gau decided it would be useful to have an official unofficial way for us to talk to his inner circle," Egan said. "To avoid any unintentional unpleasantness."
"If we tell her where to show up, she'll be there," Rigney said. "We just need to get you there."
"And make sure that no one else knows you're coming," said Egan.
* * *
"We're not attacking any of your ships," Abumwe said, to Sorvalh.
"Curious," Sorvalh said. "Because in the past several of your months, we have had twenty ships up and disappear."
Excerpted from The Human Division #11 by John Scalzi. Copyright © 2013 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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