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Raising Caine: Chapter One

       Last updated: Friday, July 24, 2015 20:48 EDT




June 2120

Far orbit; Sigma Draconis Two

    Weightless, Caine Riordan escorted the Slaasriithi ambassador to the exit of the free-floating habitation module in which they had met. Nearing the docking hatch, the slender exosapient raised one gibbonlike arm to steady its zero-gee drift and raised the other to lift a tendril-fingered hand in farewell.

    Caine returned the wave as the ambassador disappeared into its diplomatic shuttle and wondered, Will I ever get used to being the point man during first contacts? It didn’t seem likely, not when every new species presented him, and humanity, with yet another disorienting surprise. In the case of the Slaasriithi, the surprise had been in their appearance. Not because they were ghastly—they weren’t—but rather, because they were unnervingly familiar. Tightly furred, wasp-waisted, and with a roughly tetrahedral head perched atop an abbreviated ostrich neck, the Slaasriithi were identical to the primitive beings Caine had met on Delta Pavonis Three two years ago. But Ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash had denied kinship between his race and that one—sort of. Leading Riordan to conclude that there was only one constant when conducting a first contact: each day ended with more questions and mysteries than it had begun.

    As the hatch whispered closed, a muffled thump drew Caine’s attention to the opposite end of the module: his own retrieval shuttle had completed its hard dock. A voice emerged from the speaker: “Sorry about the bump, Commander Riordan.” The voice was mature, matter-of-fact: not one of the young, nervous pilots that predominated here in the recently pacified Sigma Draconis system. The Arat Kur locals, driven all the way back from their invasion of Earth, had put up a stiff fight before conceding. In consequence, there were now slightly fewer young pilots in the fleet, and those who remained were no longer quite so brash as they had been when they arrived. In short, they had grown up.

    But this shuttle-jockey sounded like he had grown up quite some time ago. He expanded upon his brief apology: “Guess I’m getting a bit rusty.”

    “Hardly felt the bump,” Caine lied politely. “Can I get out of this tin can, now?”

    “No, sorry, sir. Another half hour and the xenomicrobiologists will be done with the quarantine protocol.”

    “I’m not ‘sir.’ Just ‘Caine.’”

    “Uh…not to seem contentious, sir, but it says right here on my orders that you are a full Commander, USSF.”

    “Really? I wasn’t when I left the shift-carrier this morning.” Although, for all I know, Downing has put me back on the active duty roster. Again.

    “Well, sir, I wouldn’t know anything about that. All I know is what I read in my orders.”

    “Fair enough. They keep changing my status back and forth so fast, I’m not sure of my title from day to day.” Or whether I’m a soldier, an intelligence operative, an envoy to exosapients, or just a civilian again. “What about you? Navy?” Caine was slowly drifting back down toward the deck: the pilot of the retrieval craft had imparted a slow rotation to the module. As Caine’s toes made contact, the whole world seemed to be sliding subtly, but perpetually, sideways: the Coriolis effect from the spin.

    The shuttle-jockey corrected him. “No, sir. I’m not Navy. Commonwealth Survey and Settlement Office.”

    “You have a name?”

    “Karam Tsaami.”

    Caine, in the course of his travels, met a lot of people whose names were unusual cultural mash-ups, even for this day and age.Still, this was one of the more peculiar combinations. “So you’re, uh, Finno-Turkish?”

    “By way of Toronto, yes.” Tsaami’s tone was distinctly wry. “And unless I’m mistaken, sir, you’re the guy who reported first contact with the natives on Delta Pavonis Three at the Parthenon Dialogs two years ago.”

    Yes, the same natives who paradoxically, even impossibly, are dead-ringers for the Slaasriithi I just met with. “That was supposed to remain a closed-room debrief.”

    “Yeah, well, the story even reached me where I was ferrying, er, special payloads around the Delta Pavonis system.”

    “Special payloads?” Although officially civilians, a lot of SSO jockeys ferried covert operators around the colonies beyond Alpha Centauri. “You said you were stationed at Delta Pavonis?”

    “Yup. That’s been my home, on and off, for the past three years.”

    Three years? The pilot’s voice suddenly seemed familiar. Hey, aren’t you the guy who flew me out to the illegal CoDevCo facility on DeePeeThree?”

    Karam Tsaami sounded pleased. “Yep. That was me. Been a long road since— Hold up. I’ve got incoming commo, highest priority.” The five second pause seemed like ten minutes. “Commander, we’re going dark. Admiral Lord Halifax just called the fleet to battle stations. An Arat-Kur shift cruiser just popped in-system. ETA fifty-five minutes.”

    “And we’re going to hide?”

    “Commander, given our size, our best chance in a shooting war would be to become invisible. But since we can’t do that, we’re going to become a motionless and inconsequential speck on a scanner filled with weapons-hot bogeys. So yes, we’re going dark. Right now.”

    The speaker’s glowing green indicator winked off. Then the module’s lights did the same, leaving Riordan alone in the gently rolling darkness.

    Except that, squinting, Caine now noticed a small red light, blinking alongside the hatch through which the Slaasriithi ambassador had exited. Riordan pushed off the floor, drifted to the hatchway: nothing but the aft airlock beyond it. So did the light indicate a pressure leak? A compromised seal?

    No, he realized, leaning closer, that’s the activation light for an external commo jack. So was someone actually outside the module, trying to reach him? Caine punched the manual activation stud. “Hello?”

    “Commander Riordan, is that you?”

    “Yes. Who’s this?”

    “Bannor Rulaine, sir.”

    It made no sense that Bannor, a friend from the war, was floating just outside the airlock. To the best of Caine’s knowledge, the ex-Green Beret should still have been babysitting an enemy agent back on the flagship, a liquimix battle rifle aimed at the Ktor bastard’s midriff. “Bannor, what the hell are you doing out there?”

    “Well, sir, I’m doing what our boss Mr. Downing told me to do: watch over you. I’m not alone: Miles O’Garran is here, too.”

    Little Guy, as well? Well, Downing certainly pulled the A-team off the benches for this overwatch mission. “So why the heck are you on the outside of the module?”

    “We’re here to make sure you had some unseen back-up. Just in case something went sideways.”

    “Which, thanks to the Arat Kur, has now occurred. You got the alert?”

    “Loud and clear. And unexpected. I thought we’d accounted for all the Roaches’ ships.”

    Caine suppressed a sigh. That’s because you’re a few steps further down the clearance food chain. Just because we secured the Arat Kurs’ home system doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. “Well, your overwatch job ended when the Slaasriithi left, so, get in out of the cosmic rays.”

    “Thanks, sir, but even cracking the outer hatch is contrary to the current black-out protocols. Opening the airlock to free space would produce a thermal differential that could show up on enemy sensors. Besides, our mission isn’t over until Mr. Downing says it is. Oh, and Chief O’Garran just reminded me that this is a rare opportunity for us to work on our tans.”

    Yeah, tans which can be measured in double-digit REM per hour—the kind of tan which causes you to lose hair, and maybe a few years, if it goes on too long.

    The green light flashed on the comm panel behind Riordan. “Hold on, Bannor: message coming in.”

    Karam Tsaami’s voice was tense. “Commander, some big shot named Richard Downing wants to put you in the loop. The big loop. As in, patched through directly to Admiral Silverstein’s combat information center.”

    “And when does this happen?”

    “Dunno, sir. I’m just standing by like you are.”

    Riordan heard the weary tone of a long-term professional—a long-term government professional. Who had been his aerial chauffeur on Delta Pavonis Three two years ago. An extraordinary coincidence. Or probably not, Caine realized with a smile. “So, Karam, nice to have you ferrying me around during yet another first contact. Pretty small universe, wouldn’t you say?”

    “What? You don’t like me?”

    “Oh, I like you just fine, Karam. It’s implausible coincidences that I’m not so fond of.”

    “Yeah, okay. I was your taxi driver to the CoDevCo compound on DeePeeThree because I had the right clearances. But now—well, things are different. When it comes to you, that is.”

    Huh? “Different how?”

    “Caine, er, Commander, it’s like I was implying earlier: you don’t seem to realize how many people know your name, now. More to the point, you have no idea how many people are probably following your movements. Of course, being at the center of events during the invasion of Earth didn’t help matters, if you were trying to stay off the radar.”

    “Not like I wanted that attention.”

    “Didn’t say you did. You don’t seem the type. But even before the fires had burnt out in Jakarta, a bunch of intel types were inviting lots of your prior official contacts to come have a nice quiet chat in a nice secluded place for a nice long time.”

    “Did they suspect some of you as moles?”

    “Maybe, but mostly they were looking for folks with clearance who’d already had direct contact with you. They picked me to be one of the ship jockeys who could also watch your back. But you pretty much fell off the grid after Jakarta.”

    Did I ever. “That’s because I didn’t walk away at the end of the Battle of Jakarta. I rode out here to Sigma Draconis in an intensive-care cold cell.”

    “Ah. Sorry. I didn’t know that you—wait: message coming through.”

    Tsaami was back on within the minute. “Okay, I’m jumping off the line. Mr. Downing is going to come on in a few moments with brief instructions. He’s bouncing this one commo through my lascom and then cutting me out of the loop.”

    “Good talking to you, Karam.”

    “Yeah, likewise. We’ll have to get a beer someday when you aren’t on everyone’s watch list.”

    The circuit switched channels with a pop. Downing’s voice—crisp, urgent, and decidedly Oxbridge—crackled out of the speaker: “Caine, if you are reading this, you are to reply with a zero point two second coded lascom pulse with wavelength variation protocol Hotel X-Ray Seven.”

    Riordan did so, and then, after his pulse’s variation fingerprint had cleared the security firewall, asked, “Richard, what the hell is going on? Why would only one Arat Kur ship shift into—?”

    “No time now, Caine. You’ll be receiving live-feed from my pick-up here in the intel situation room. Once you are in that loop, just listen. Do not send. It is unlikely that tight-beam emissions would register on enemy sensors, but we don’t want to take a chance. In the meantime, stand by for emergency extraction by us, by the Slaasriithi, or to hear that we are relinquishing command authority over your team—Tsaami, Rulaine, O’Garran—directly to you.”

    Riordan increased the volume for Bannor’s benefit. “So I’m waiting to learn whether or not the shit that’s hitting the fan will bury half the fleet. Or more.”

    Downing only replied: “Stay alert.”

    The circuit closed and then reopened on a different frequency, this one a loud babble of orders, reports, and counterorders: the sounds of Admiral Ira Silverstein’s CIC at red alert and weapons free.

    Bannor commented through the external comm circuit: “They sound pretty panicked.”

    Riordan listened more carefully. “They’re scrambling every drone and Hunter-class control sloop they’ve got on ready status. Problem is, this Arat Kur ship shifted in so close that they don’t have the time to push out a full protective hemisphere around our shift-carriers. Whatever happens is going to be close, dirty, and very destructive.”

    “Makes me glad the Arat Kur only brought one ship.”

    Caine grunted agreement and listened to the staccato sitreps and flight ops chatter crackling out of the speaker behind him. He recognized Admiral Silverstein’s voice laying down a barrage of orders: “I want those Boulton-class cruisers out in front and on our flanks. And Commo, you tell the shift-carrier captains that if I don’t see them red-line their thrusters and un-ass this area of operations, I will personally come to each of their bridges when this is over and bust them down to ensigns. Nothing is more important than our shift hulls. Nothing. Signal Halifax on Trafalgar that we are now at eighty percent of maximum power output and stand ready to discharge spinal weapons and point defense fire lasers simultaneously.”

    “Sir,” cried another familiar voice—communications officer Lieutenant Brill, if Caine remembered correctly—“I’ve got incoming signals from the enemy ship. Well, maybe it’s not an enemy ship.”

    “Brill, give me clear data or I’ll find someone who can.”

    “Sir, I think— Listen.”

    Yet another voice, this one unfamiliar, became prominent. “—ld your fire. I say again: hold your fire. This is prize-ship Doppelganger, transmitting on all frequencies, all codes: please respond. Repeat, hold your—”

    “Damn it!” Silverstein shouted. “Captain Kagawa, this is Admiral Silverstein. You nearly had us soiling our duty suits over here. We were seconds away from frying that Arat Kur hull you’ve commandeered. Why the hell didn’t you follow protocol and communicate immediately?”

    Kagawa sounded harried. “Two problems, Admiral. The first was that the Arat Kur left us some viral surprises in the communications software.”

    “Damn it, I thought we’d purged all that crap.”

    “From the coding and management systems, yes, sir. But not from the physical interfaces. The Roaches must have triggered this sleeper virus to activate when the shift drive was engaged without a passkey code. From the moment we came out of shift, we couldn’t get the radios or lascoms to realign or transmit.”

    “Then why the hell didn’t you stand off and pulse your power plants to send a Morse code mayday in the clear?”

    “Well, sir, that’s the second problem.”

    “More software issues?”

    “No, sir. A diplomatic issue.”

    “A diplomatic issue?” Silverstein repeated.

    “Yes, sir. Our ranking passenger—and he officially ranks me, once we entered this system—ordered that we maintain our approach even as we tried to regain control of our communications.”

    “What? Why? Damn it, who is this ass, anyway?”

    “It is I,” said another familiar voice, “Ambassador Etienne Gaspard, charged to lead the negotiations with the Arat Kur Wholenest. And now, apparently, I have been promoted to ‘ass.’ I am unfamiliar with the duties and prerogatives of that new rank, Admiral, but it shall figure prominently in my report of this event. Of that I assure you.”

    “What the hell is going on?” Bannor asked, evidently having heard the furor but not the specific words. “Are we being hit by the Arat Kur?”

    “No,” Riordan answered, “worse.”

    “Worse? What could be worse?”

    “We’re being hit by diplomats. Stand by to come in out of the sun, guys.”

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