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Marque of Caine: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Friday, March 22, 2019 21:25 EDT



June, 2123

Nevis, Earth

    Riordan put his hand on the dashboard to steady himself: two klicks past Amory Air Terminal, the road degenerated so rapidly that driving at the speed limit was inadvisable. Unfortunately, the car only knew what it was told by the island’s static database: Nevis had neither the budget nor the demand for a self-updating roadnet.

    The car bumped and jostled through one small village after another, none more than a kilometer apart. Locals recognized the car, waved casually. Caine returned the greeting.

    Upon entering a cluster of slightly more modern buildings–Brick Kiln–the car swerved to the right, exiting the main road just reaching the “Old Town”: dusty, cramped streets hemmed in by stone buildings. The car climbed up the narrow lane rapidly. Riordan overrode the automatic controls, took the wheel: the road surface here was not just annoying, it was dangerous.

    Slaloming around the worst of the holes, Riordan was glad for the distraction: easier not to think about what Connor might be doing. But at least the sloop, if no more modern than Nevis’ electric and ethanol-powered cars, was an excellent ship. The well-maintained unipiece hull was almost forty years old, the alloy masts about half that. The radar and radio were sturdy, if basic, as were the sails. The only truly modern feature was the “ray-grabber” cabin roof that was, despite appearances, one big, high-efficiency solar panel. On days like today, it kept a steady current flowing into the flat-form battery that resembled a drop-ceiling affixed to the small cabin’s overhead.

    The Slimline Janus outboard was not quite as modern, but that, too, was preferable so as not to attract undue attention. Massing only 30 kilos, it was a dual-operation motor, able to switch between the high performance of gasoline and the endurance of electricity at a moment’s notice. That had proven extremely handy when the weather turned unexpectedly as it had on one of their earliest trips to the barren island-butte known as Redonda. They’d had no choice but to try to beat the storm back to Nevis: there was no bay or mooring on the uninhabited rock spur. By saving the gasoline to fight the tougher currents and pre-storm swells on the forty kilometer return trip, they got the sloop to safety before the rain and wind arrived to knock down trees and take the odd roof or two.

    The narrow road straightened, the gradient easing. Up ahead, Caine glimpsed the muted sheen of their house’s solar shingles, checked his wristlink. Not quite 10 AM. Enough time for a quick hike to the small rise known as Mount Butler, a fast descent into the rain forest behind it, and then a leisurely northward return through the ravine that separated the knobby hill from the skirts of Mount Nevis.

    *     *     *

    Beyond The Narrows, Connor tacked away from Nevis toward St. Kitts, but more specifically, toward Booby Island. A one-hundred meter hump of stone and tenacious bushes, even a shallow draft sloop had to take care while slipping between the hull-gutting rocks which surrounded it. Once ashore, Connor would eat his lunch and take advantage of the island’s isolation as he and his father habitually did: to get in some quick target practice.

    It was perfect for handguns. A short scramble up into the rocks and you were invisible among the gnarled branches. The reports were swallowed by the swift current’s constant susurration and the bash and spray of unruly swells.

    Connor scanned the horizon: a few fishing boats, back beyond the leeward mouth of the channel and heading in the opposite direction. As usual, Booby Island meant privacy. Which, for Connor and his father, also meant safety.

    Connor, like many of his generation, did not take safety for granted. Not anymore. But unlike the generations that would follow, he remembered a time when you never gave a thought to the basic security of your existence. You just got up and started your day.

    Then the aliens invaded. Even after they were kicked off Earth, Connor struggled against the fear that his family would never really be safe again. His Mom had been badly wounded during the Battle of Jakarta–so badly that other, friendly aliens had to take her away for advanced care. Trevor and Nuncle Richard left Indonesia to chase the invaders back to their own worlds. News tended to be sparse, vague, and even contradictory. What was manifestly obvious, however, was that, except for his grandma, his whole family had been swallowed up by the war. Hell, even Caine Riordan, his ostensible father, was gone.

    Uncle Trevor didn’t come back for almost eight months. Nuncle Richard didn’t come back for almost a year and was gone again after a few weeks. And Mom never came back at all. But, a year and a half later, Uncle Trevor showed up on Grandma’s doorstep with confidential news: Caine Riordan had finally returned. When asked if he wanted to meet his father, glib, voluble fifteen-year-old Connor discovered that, for the first few minutes, the only reply he could muster was a series of emphatic nods.

    However, that meeting didn’t take place right away. Certain of Earth’s governments, particularly those of the Developing World Coalition bloc, wanted to bring Riordan to trial. For what reason, and on what charges, was never particularly clear. Politicians and reporters flung around various terms: dereliction of duty, disobeying orders, mutiny, even treason on one or two occasions. But in the end, Caine was either exonerated or white-washed, because they were willing to let him go. And so Connor finally met his father.

    As Connor approached Booby Island he turned increasingly into the breeze, slowing the sloop by instinct. Which was fortunate, because only half of his mind was on the boat; the other was on all the changes that had occurred since that first meeting.

    He smiled, looked around: bright sun, blue water, and the calming sounds of the sea. A father who did not push, but led by example. Who had effectively home-schooled him for the past two years. Not by lecturing, but by enticing him from question to question, by finding what Connor loved most and creating projects which integrated and engaged those passions. And who was always ready to listen, always ready with a smile, or, eventually, a hug.

    Connor tossed the small anchor over the side. For fifteen years, he hadn’t known his father at all. For the last two, he’d spent almost every waking and sleeping hour near him.

    All things being equal, it had been worth the wait.



    Five seconds after the crewman left the crate on the afterdeck of the Golden Hold, a discus-sized quadrotor drone emerged from its square, dark mouth. Sensors spun, examined. It moved to the taffrail, scouting the parts of the ship that were in its line of sight, and then the watery reaches astern. It rose slightly and sent a millisecond tight-beam signal back along the path it had flown.

    A larger drone, more than half a meter across, rose out of the crate, propellers buzzing far more audibly than its partner’s. It made for the taffrail, passed the smaller drone and, once over open water, dropped sharply. It leveled off only two meters above the low swells, is chromaflage skin shading toward a dark grey-blue. An unaided human eye would have been at pains to pick it out.



ippet 04

    The other drone kept observing the ship until the first was within a hundred meters of Charlestown. Then it, too, went over the stern and dropped closer to the waves, rushing to catch up to its larger partner and seeking for the transponder signal that it had been coded to discover amidst the wash of other transmissions cluttering the local wavelengths.

    Catching a faint fragment of the target signal, the drone angled toward The Narrows and locked on to a course that would swing around the north slopes of Mount Nevis until it reached the jungle ravines on its windward side.



    Caine’s car bumped and creaked up his steep driveway, the engine’s labors diminishing once it crested the lip of the car port.

    Up the stairs to the single-story house two steps at a time, physical key into the front door, and then Riordan was moving briskly for the kitchen. Specifically, to the refrigerator for a bottle of water. Hikes into Nevis’ rain-forested volcanic slopes were strenuous, not low-impact strolls.

    The bottle misted over as soon as it came out of the fridge, prompting Caine to glance at the brass weather clock on his way to the white-washed veranda. The humidity wasn’t too bad. Better than the water-beaded bottle had made him anticipate.

    But, as Riordan stepped outside to test it for himself, he had to admit that his concern with the humidity was more a matter of habit than anything else. Upon arriving two years ago, he’d been trepidatious about walks in the jungle. By 1:00 PM, the air felt more like something you drank rather than breathed, summoning memories that had been burned into his lungs and his mind. Three and a half years ago, he had struggled to keep up with Indonesian insurgents in Java. A year after that, he had almost died of xenospore-induced asthma on a planet of the very alien Slaasriithi.

    But now, miraculously, his wind was better than ever and seemed to improve with each passing week. So had the ease with which he got through an increasing number of calisthenics, a moderate weight-lifting regimen, and morning swims in the ocean. Maybe it was the climate. Maybe it was his own home cooked food. Maybe it was the slower pace of life in the Caribbean. But in almost every way, he felt more vigorous and energetic than he had in ten years. Or maybe, he thought with a smile, that’s just another benefit of being relaxed, of being happy.

    Of being a father.

    Riordan popped the bottle’s top, took a long drink. Preemptive hydration remained a requirement, no matter how fit he felt, no matter how promising the weather was. And he’d never seen finer than today’s: still no clouds in the sky and still a cool breeze in the foothills.

    He sipped again, stared down the long slope at the buildings of Brick Kiln. Some of the roofs were solar shingle, others refurbished solar panels, and no small number were still corrugated steel that winked and shimmered in the sun. Like the cracked and creased road which ran between those shiny-topped houses, nothing much had changed there since well before humanity had dodged its first extraplanetary threat forty years ago: the Doomsday Rock.

    Riordan smiled at the contrast between the town and the Consolidated Terran Republic’s futurist projections and imagery. Like every new state before it, the CTR depicted the coming decades as those which would finally usher in a world of ubiquitous plenty, tidiness, and sleek new machinery.

    The reality, both now and historically, was that whatever the future held, change was always uneven in distribution and irregular in timing. Plenty still varied along social lines. Tidiness was transient. And slick new technology labored alongside worn machines that were older than their operators.

    Happily, that made Nevis a great place to hide. Although it was well-wired, many devices were still analog instead of digital, or even manual instead of electric. Only a modest number of its machines actively exchanged data, little of which was useful to the netcrawling search bots that could seek out a disappeared person’s electronic scent like so many computerized bloodhounds. The island had cameras in all the places that required them–the banks, the clinic, the two police stations, the small medical school, cargo holding areas, and the Air Terminal–but almost none on the roadways or in the schools. And if you spent cash rather than electronic credits, your online footprint remained practically invisible.

    Riordan sealed the water bottle, slipped it into a cargo pocket as he made for his bedroom: time to change into a lighter, looser shirt.

    As he entered, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. No worry wrinkles, no dark rings under his eyes. It was nice to start each day without looking over your shoulder for the people who were surely looking for you.



    The small drone pulled ahead of the larger one, angling northeast, well away from Charlestown. They kept low as they neared the stretch of sand that marked the northern end of Pinney’s Beach: less spectacular and far from tourist amenities, it was the most likely place to come ashore undetected. An alarmed seagull watched the drones hum over the whitecaps, cross ten meters of coral powder beach, then five meters of dune grass and driftwood before disappearing into the dark beneath the palms.

    Once concealed, the drones’ twinned trajectories bent northward, courting the shadows as they flew up the smooth, tree-cluttered slope. Skirting the small villages of Vaughans and Jessup’s Village, they held course until their altimeters indicated they were two hundred meters above sea level.

    The larger drone’s on-board navigation program paused for a millisecond as its positional confirmation routine kicked in. Both drones’ sensors measured fixed emission sources and expected visual landmarks, compared results, established that the first over-ground waypoint had been reached. Second stage navigation and evasion parameters were accessed. Self-learning processes were initiated. Statistically significant operational variables–weather, EM activity levels, change in expected frequency of human or vehicular encounters–were assessed, deemed negligible.

    Satisfied that all approach protocols were nominal, the larger drone emitted a single, coded millisecond ping. After two seconds, an even more brief, and heavily encoded signal pinged back: the target’s transponder. It was active, and its general directionality placed it well within the engagement footprint of the primary scenario.

    With the discus now back in the lead, the two drones altered course dramatically. Whereas before they had been heading on a mostly straight line for the volcanic cone at the approximate center of Nevis, now they began to maneuver around it in a slow clockwise curve that kept them between 200 and 220 meters above sea level.

    Driven by a ceaseless cascade of numbers, of digital measurements and directions, there was nothing in the drone’s processing that would have been vaguely familiar to a human’s sensory perception of the world. However, if a programmer had been there to translate the data stream, the plan was simple enough. Taking Mount Nevis as the face of a clock, the two drones were starting from the 9 o’clock position and sweeping around until they got to 1 o’clock: the coordinates of Waypoint Two.

    Once there, they would be in range to commence terminal operations.

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