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Marque of Caine: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Tuesday, April 2, 2019 20:57 EDT



June, 2123

Nevis, Earth

    Riordan peered closely into the cracked corner-checking mirror. Although the combo goggles from his stash were half-broken–the thermal imaging was busted–the light intensification enabled him to see a small object float into the cave. Drifting only ten centimeters above the rough floor, it edged forward, swiveling slowly.

    As Riordan watched it work, he kept the mirror in close contact with the surrounding stone. The drone was evidently creating a 3-d map of the cave. Too small to be an attack element but, whether another drone or humans were in charge of the operation, that commander was wisely taking steps not to enter the cave blind. Yet, the little quadrotor’s sensors were a heavy load for its small fans, which suggested a comparatively short range and limited battery life. Its home platform, whether carried by a human operator or mounted on a larger drone, was probably nearby.

    However, humans would have been hard pressed to arrive here so quickly. Even if they had a fix on Caine’s transponder, the trail leading to it often branched in counter-instinctual directions. Pursuers on foot would have had to guess the correct turn every time in order to be here already. But drones were fast enough that they would have been able to have guess incorrectly several times and still be on site by now. So, the proximal elements of the pursuit were likely to be purely automated.

    Furthermore, the movements of the drone suggested a machine controller. Every action, no matter how small, was precise: no wobble, no lingering or reversing to inspect an unusual feature. Machine controllers never reassessed what they had already assessed, just as following a “hunch” was not within the scope of their processors.

    As the little quadrotor crept back into his mirror’s cover-reduced field of vision, Caine refined his hypotheses. Autonomous strike assets were also likely when an enemy’s highest priority was anonymity. And whoever wanted to kill Caine was probably even more determined to remain unimplicated.

    That decided Riordan. He couldn’t be sure he was only facing automatons, but that was the safest bet. He activated his pistol’s smartgun attachment, then squeezed the remote control actuator he held snugged between his left thumb and the mirror’s handle.

    The instant he did so, the quadrotor spun, its sensor cluster swinging away from the rear of the cave where Caine was located. Now fixed on the alcove from which Caine had retrieved the bag, the little drone moved forward, inspecting that section of the rough wall.

    Riordan leaned out, gave his smartgun a look at its target, selected the image of the quadrotor as soon as it was highlighted in the scope, and squeezed the trigger. The gun did not fire until Caine had aligned it with its designated target, at which point the weapon fired twice. The impacts bounced the drone off the wall, showering pieces.

    Riordan ducked back into his cramped space, raised the mirror again to watch for a reaction, noticed blood rolling down toward his wrist. Damn it. His self-inflicted forearm wound was still dripping, some of it spilling to the ground. Hopefully, it would blend into the patches of thin mud that had collected in the low points of the floor.

    Because there wasn’t anything Caine could do about it now.

    *     *     *

    The main drone’s AI registered all the relevant information at once: the sound of a firearm; the abrupt termination of the datafeed from the subdrone in the cave; and its last, fragmentary detection of a small gap in the left-hand cave wall.

    Priorities altered immediately. The last subdrone was pulled off rearguard duty and sent into the tunnel at maximum speed. Secondary contingencies to deal with the possibility of the target escaping from the cave or the arrival of his allies were dismissed. A swiftly mounted attack would ensure that the target could not flee, and any inbound allies would arrive too late. However, in the event that they materialized sooner than anticipated, the self-destruct circuit was brought to readiness.

    The second subdrone swept into the cave, skimmed above the debris that had been its partner, then went high as it drew abreast of the fractionally scanned alcove. It was a near-certainty that was the source of the attack, since that was definitely the source of the transponder signal. The large drone entered the cave slowly, its much more powerful fans filling the narrow space with a steady current of deeper sound.

    The subdrone’s audio sensors reported the concomitant drop in discriminative acuity, edged forward until it was able to look into the craggy recess at a shallow angle: nothing. The alcove curved away from opening, doubled back in the direction of the entrance. The subdrone would have to advance further to get a good look inside.

    As it started to do so, a human voice emanated from the alcove; it was faint, almost a whisper. Direction-finding indicated that it was colocated with the transponder signal. There was also a brief, frequency-jumping radio emission from further within the cave, consistent with a highly compressed communications burst. Possibly a remote signaling device of some kind.

    The AI assessed: the transponder signal from within the fissure was so proximal that the target’s elimination was virtually ensured. Only final confirmation and a firing solution were required. The large drone sent the smaller one directly into the alcove, then followed, accelerating, hastening to close the distance and bring its weapons to bear.

    The subdrone turned the corner, scanned in all spectra.

    The sound of the human voice was emanating from what appeared to be a wadded shirt on the cave floor. A playback device was hidden in the folds of fabric, which, combined with the noise from the larger drone, had compromised audio reception enough to momentarily cause the voice to be mistaken for that of an actual human, rather than from a speaker. Wires ran away from the crumpled shirt to the radio-controlled actuator which had triggered the playback remotely. Completing the ruse, the target’s transponder signal was emanating not from a human body, but from a waist-high hollow just behind the playback unit. A close scan revealed that the transponder was wedged into a crevice and was covered in a dark fluid. Split-second analysis confirmed what the AI simultaneously conjectured: based on color, reflectivity, and projected viscosity, the liquid was blood.

    Crammed in alongside the transponder was a handgun slaved to another remote activation unit. The AI spent .001 seconds matching the firearm to a corresponding file image: a Unitech ten millimeter liquimix pistol. An enhanced model capable of five-round bursts and fitted with a smartgun targeting system. At this range, if the weapon was loaded with armor piercing rounds, its mission-kill probability on the large drone was eighty-five percent or greater. The AI did not detect any mechanism capable of adjusting the weapon’s aimpoint, but a definitive scan would take another half second. Too long.

    Mission preservation algorithms took over. A port opened in the drone’s undercarriage. Two minirockets flashed into the alcove, detonated sharply.

    At the same instant, the subdrone detected sounds of movement at the far end of the cave. Turning swiftly, it spotted a faint and mostly hidden thermal signature leaping upward.

    The AI, busy reassessing the tactical scenario, ran a heuristic analysis to how the new movement might be causally related to the events leading to the detection and destruction of the decoy in the alcove. Integrated result: the target had excised its transponder to use as bait, and had somehow hidden itself from thermal sensors in a very small crevice at the rear of the cave, from which it was now attempting a vertical exit. However, if the drone closed on the target, the improved sensor results would ensure a clean lock on the target, despite its curiously degraded IR signature.



    The large drone rotated, revved its rotors to close at maximum speed–

    –Just as it detected another high-compression radio burst from back of the cave. Having two prior samples for comparison, identification was almost instantaneous: the encryption was military grade.

    Overhead, as if in response to that radio burst, something with a low electric current activated.

    Already speeding forward, the drone’s AI correlated the new data and projected the logical endpoint of the chain of events in which it was now trapped. There was no time left to establish a lock on the target. The only options now were:

    Command One: fire all remaining fourteen millimeter missiles using preliminary target solution.

    Command Two: engage self-destruct.

    The electric impulse carrying those instructions reached the drone’s weapon control circuits the same moment that the plastic explosive concealed in an overhead crevice detonated.



    Connor leaned farther back into the brush as the slowing aircar’s throaty rush up-dopplered into a two-toned roar. Between boughs, he watched the vehicle’s four thrusters roll through a sharp attitude change; the two at the rear pivoted ninety degrees into VTOL mode, the front pair snapped forward 135 degrees into counterthrust. The aircar shuddered to a halt. One of the three silhouettes in its open passenger compartment swept the island with multi-spectrum binoculars.

    Clutching his pistol, Connor knew, even as he threw himself back behind a boulder, that he had reacted a second too late. If he had seen the binoculars, its thermal imaging and motion sensors had certainly seen him. He snapped the safety off, experienced a sharp longing for his dad, but thought about only one thing: surviving.

    The thrusters quieted considerably. Then a shout: “Connor?”

    It wasn’t surprising that these men knew his name there had been nothing uncertain about their approach–but he was shocked to recognize the voice. Was that Uncle Trevor? No: couldn’t be. It was probably some kind of trick . . .

    “Connor, it’s me, Uncle Trevor. I’ll come to you, if you want.”

    “How do I know it’s really you?”

    “Want me to tell you what we had for Thanksgiving three years ago?”

    Connor swore silently. Damn it, even I don’t remember that.

    “Or maybe you want me to tell you the dish that I bring every year and which everyone secretly hates. Even you.”

    “Hey, I never said–“

    “I wasn’t born yesterday, Connor. I know when I’m being patronized.”

    Connor closed his eyes. Whoever they were, they had a high-powered and very expensive government aircar, were probably armed to the teeth with the latest milspec weapons, and outnumbered him at least three to one. He, on the other hand, had a decent civilian handgun, a couple of auspiciously placed trees and rocks to hide behind, and no idea of what the hell was going on. He risked a peek around the other side of the rock.

    If the guy who saw and waved at him wasn’t his uncle, then either Connor was hallucinating or someone had created a clone of Trevor just to trick him into leaving his cover. Yeah, right. Connor stood up.

    Trevor waved both arms, his sudden smile actually glinting in the sun. He gestured for the driver to boost the fans, which pushed the aircar up the slope until it was hovering just below Connor’s hiding place. Trevor waved for him to hop down into the vehicle.

    Connor grabbed his gear, took his uncle’s extremely firm hand–damn, he’s strong!–and took a long step down into the car. “Uncle Trevor, what the hell is going–?”

    “We’ve got to find your father.” Trevor tapped the driver, pulled Connor down, pointed to the four-point straps. “Harness up. We’re moving.”

    Connor barely had time to get the unfamiliar buckles done before the aircar leaped forward. “Moving where? Why–?”

    “You’ve been found, both of you.” Trevor had a carbine with him: a short-barreled version of the standard military shoulder arm, the CoBro ten millimeter liquimix. He snapped it over to full automatic. “We don’t know how they did it, but given the timing, our bet is that there’s a leak in our intelligence services. That’s why there are only the three of us here; we know we can trust each other. The guy driving is my pal, Chief Petty Officer Cruz, and this gentleman is Associate Director Gray Rinehart.”

    Associate Director of what? Connor wondered, but he was too worried about his father to follow that any further. “Is Dad okay? Where is he?”

    Trevor ran his hand through his hair: the speed-amplified breeze caught it, made it look like a lion’s mane in a wind-tunnel. “That’s the trouble: he could be in any one of three, maybe four, places.”


    “Just as we were lifting to pick you up, Caine’s transponder . . . well, it multiplied. There are three identical copies of his transponder signal on the grid right now and we don’t know which is his.”

    “How is that possible?”

    Trevor sighed. “We gave him two decoys before you came here. In case he had to confuse someone who was trying to track him. We had just entered St. Kitts’ airspace when the two extra transponders signals showed up–and another of yours, too. So your Dad clearly got our message that your cover is blown and you’re in danger.”

    Connor thought for a moment. “Can you show me where the transponders are?”

    Trevor glanced at Rinehart, who shrugged and tilted a polarized palmtop toward Connor.

    Connor studied it briefly. “These signals: can you show me their prior movement?”

    Rinehart raised an eyebrow, adjusted the view: flashing lines showed on to show the path of each transponder.

    Connor nodded, pointed at the one that had traveled the least. “That’s Dad.”

    “How do you know?”

    “The one that’s way to the south is just stupid. Dad wouldn’t get into the car to drive around the island. If the enemy has drones, they could downlook and kill him the same way a hawk gets a rabbit–couldn’t they?”

    Trevor and Rinehart exchanged looks that became furtive smiles. “That sounds about right. And the other one, to the east of your house?”

    “I know that part of the coast. You have be a goat to move around down there. From a map, it looks like you could walk it. And you could if you’re both lucky and suicidal. But most likely, you’re just going to fall or get washed out to sea by one of the bigger waves. After you get bounced around on the jagged volcanic rocks, that is. But this signal,”– he pointed at the transponder icon that had moved part of the way to Mount Nevis–“that’s on the path where we go hiking. Or running, if Dad decides to make our day particularly miserable. And at that exact spot, there are caves. Lots of caves.”

    Trevor tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Site three. Maximum thrust.”

    “Sir,” muttered Cruz, “that speed is way above local limits. We’re going to become real high profile, real fast.”

    “Yeah, and that’s a real shame. Red-line it, Carlos.”

    A flock of seagulls scattered out of their way, startled and perhaps envious of the wedge-shaped aircar which left them behind as if they were suspended motionless in mid-air.

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