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Raising Caine: Chapter Four

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



Far orbit; Sigma Draconis Two

    Strapped into one of the forward acceleration couches in a Commonwealth armored pinnace, Caine glanced back toward the cargo section where Tlerek Srin Shethkador and Miles O’Garran’s security detachment were waiting. Downing was alongside Riordan, studying the feed from the forward sensors. “Do we have a visual yet?”

    Downing shook his head. “No, but it’s still early.”

    Caine rubbed his hands, felt chilly despite the constant twenty degrees centigrade maintained inside the armored pinnace. “You know, I’m surprised the Ktor agreed to have me come aboard. My prior exchanges with them haven’t exactly been pleasant, and I just outed Shethkador—and therefore, all of the Ktor—as humans a couple of days ago. I doubt I’m on their ‘favorite Earth-folks’ list right now.”

    Downing’s smile was faint. “True, but it’s of no consequence. You’ll go aboard, present your credentials, participate in whatever ridiculous minuet of courtesies and verbal fencing they elect to impose, and be present long enough to see Shethkador aboard to the satisfaction of this Olsirkos Shethkador-vah.”

    “Sirs,” the co-pilot called into the passenger compartment, “I have a visual of Ferocious Monolith. Feed three, if you want to take a look.”

    “Very good, Lieutenant,” called Downing, who pulled the screen into a position where both he and Caine could study it.

    Riordan wasn’t convinced he was looking at a shift-carrier at first. It did not have the distinctively freight-train modular appearance of all human and most Arat Kur shift-capable craft. It was shaped rather like a thickened Neolithic arrowhead: a wide, flat delta shape, with a notch separating the warhead from the after part that would be lashed to the shaft. There were no rotating habitats in evidence, and further surface details were hard to discern because, unlike any other spacecraft Riordan had ever seen, its surface was dead black. Truly dead black, Caine realized as he looked for reflections and found none. “I think that hull is designed to absorb light,” he muttered.

    Downing nodded. “The same sort of effect we’ve noticed with the Dornaani. But this is a damned odd jull design. How do they maintain gravity equivalent in crew quarters? And if that large section aft of the widest part of the delta-shape is the engineering section, then how the devil do they shield the crew?”

    Answers started presenting themselves. Caine pointed to a pair of transverse seams that had appeared close to the center of the arrowhead. “Something is separating from the hull; a whole band of it is lifting up.”

    “No,” corrected Downing after a moment, “that band of hull is splitting apart along the ship’s centerline, dividing into two equal halves that are moving out from its axis.”

    Caine squinted and then understood what he was looking at. “Those two halves, at the end of those extending pylons: those are the rotational habitats.”

    Downing nodded as the hull sections began spinning about the thick keel of the ship, at which point they underwent a further transformation. The two faces of each segment began to split apart and open like a jackknife. They ultimately unfolded into two hinged, mirror-image halves, the top and bottom faces joined at a one-hundred-twenty degree angle of incidence. They began to spin around the ship’s long axis.

    “That’s a pretty impressive piece of engineering,” Downing murmured.

    “I don’t think they’re done showing off, though,” commented Caine, who had noticed movement back along the notch that segmented the ship into its forward and aft sections. “Look.” From the section behind the notch, fins or sails were extending outward.

    Downing frowned. “What the devil—?”

    “Sirs!” exclaimed the co-pilot. “Intruder energy output is spiking, neutrinos increasing sharply. I think their engines are—”

    But Caine didn’t hear the rest. The fins or sails were becoming a kind of black parasol around the stern of the ship, separating the forward personnel and cargo section from the aft engineering decks.

    As the parasol continued to expand outward like a skirt, the co-pilot reported, “We are no longer in the line of the emissions, sir, but they continue to spike. We can detect the bloom around the edge of that…that stingray’s peacock tail.”

    Downing glanced at Caine. “A peacock-tailed stingray: seems as good a description as any.”

    Caine shrugged. “Better than anything I’d have come up with.”

    Downing grinned crookedly. “I thought you were a writer.”

    Caine tried to return the grin, but couldn’t get past the irony of who had whisked him out of that career, thereby destroying it.“Yes, well, two guys from IRIS put an end to that about fifteen years ago, now—Richard.”

    Downing looked like he had swallowed his tongue. Or wanted to. “Caine, I—”

    Caine shook his head. “Sorry, Richard. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to joke about that. But what’s done is done. I’m where I need to be, I guess, and we work well together. Let’s leave it at that, yeh?”

    Downing nodded, avoided Caine’s eyes by focusing intently on the screen. “Look at the thermal image overlay.”

    Caine did, and frowned. “Damn, with all the energy their power plant is putting out, that flimsy parasol ought to be white-hot by now. The neutrinos alone should be cutting straight through—”

    Downing shook his head. “No. It’s not just a shield. Look how its rim temperature drops off rapidly, even down where the parasol emerges from the hull. And it’s not just a radiator, either.”

    Caine felt his eyebrows rise slightly. “Advanced thermionic materials?”

    Downing shrugged. “What else makes sense? Whatever that parasol is made of, it not only absorbs heat but eliminates it, probably by converting it directly into electricity. And it’s doing so at efficiency levels that are at least an order of magnitude greater than anything we have. It’s a damper, shield, and power-reclamation system all in one. A pearl of great price.”

    “Yes, and another bit of purposeful bragging,” Caine added. “A ship with a system like that is going to have a much better power-to-mass ratio than ours or the Arat Kurs’.”

    Downing nodded. “To say nothing of higher operating efficiency and better ready power levels.”

    Caine sighed, leaned back. “So they’ve shown us that they can put a tiger worth of hurt in the body of a housecat. But there is one significant drawback to their dominance display.”

    Downing smiled. “They’ve shown us how much higher we need to be able to jump if we want to match them. Although I must say that is a high, high bar.”

    Caine shrugged. “Which means we’d better get hopping.” He stood into the zero-gee without remembering to be careful—and discovered that, finally, it was starting to become second nature. “Let’s request approach instructions and get this over with.”



    Shortly after they docked with Ferocious Monolith, the Ktoran craft brought its rotating sections to a halt and commenced to spin slowly around its own keel, instead. Caine surmised that was probably because the exchange was likely to take place in the main hull and the Ktor didn’t want to go through those formalities in zero-gee. It was pretty hard to look dignified and imposing while floating, unpowered, in mid air. Particularly their returning leader, the Srin Tlerek Shethkador.

    The Srin Shethkador. None of the analysts who had pored over every recorded word of the assassin-ambassador’s utterances had been able to determine precisely what a Srin was, nor was Shethkador disposed to clarify the matter for them. It was clearly a title of some importance, but whether it was civil or military, inherited or earned, remained a complete mystery. And it will probably still be a mystery when this day is over, Caine reflected as the armored pinnace’s docking hatch opened to reveal the Ktoran ship’s ingress: a shiny iris valve. After a five-second wait, the plates of the valve dilated with a ringing hiss, revealing four guards in what looked like armored vacc suits, unfamiliar weapons at the ready. Faceless behind the black helmet visor that was part of their uniform equipage, one stepped forward and gestured that Caine should approach.

    Caine turned and saw that Miles O’Garran was right behind him, the top of his head barely reaching Riordan’s shoulder. “Ready, Miles?”

    “Whenever you are, sir. But—”


    “Are you sure you want me to do this solo, leave my guys back here to keep the ambassador company?”

    “I’m sure.”

    “May I ask why, sir? They’re all eager to come along. Real eager.”

    “That attitude, while laudable, is why I’m leaving them here. For all we know, the Ktor might try to have some fun with us, try to provoke us into making some misstep. I need a seasoned pro who can keep his head clear and his finger away from the trigger if that starts happening. I know you’re good for that job. The other guys and gals: they seem a little too heavy on the oo-rah and a little light on Zen-like serenity.”

    O’Garran smiled. “Good working with you again, sir.”

    “You too, Miles. Let’s get this over with.”

    The corridors to the bridge were masterpieces of defensive architecture: cut-backs, hard-points, doorways, and angles that had been designed to make any hostile boarding attempts a tactical nightmare. No automated defense blisters or systems of any kind, though, Caine noted. Strange.

    Bracketed front and back by their escorts, Caine and O’Garran arrived, without fanfare or much warning, on the bridge of the Ferocious Monolith. They passed through a slightly wider automated hatchway and were suddenly in the surprisingly small compartment. Caine peripherally noted various details: that they hadn’t come through the largest entry to the bridge; that most of the crew were in plain grey flight suits; that instead of appearing extremely advanced, the bridge was spartan. It even lacked the minimalist elegance Riordan associated with higher technology: it was a triumph of ugly utilitarianism.

    But Caine did not focus on any of these, or the hundred other details that vied for his attention. The best way to look anxious and disoriented is to gawk at my surroundings. And I’m not here to look like a yokel with wide eyes and hat in hand. This is the lair of dominance-obsessed predators; my job is to find the alpha and look him in the eyes and keep looking. And to not blink. Not once.

    Riordan did not have long to wait. A tall, trim Ktoran—much adorned with what were presumably symbols of rank or achievement—turned from a cluster of advisors and faced the human visitors. He stared.

    Caine stared back…and did not approach.

    The Ktoran frowned. “I am Olsirkos Shethkador-vah, Master of Ferocious Monolith. You may approach.”

    Well, I see we’re going to start the wrestling match right away. “I am Commander Caine Riordan, Consolidated Terran Republic Naval Forces. I have been approaching since I boarded your ship. I am here to present my credentials and documents concerning the violations, condition, and repatriation of Ambassador Tlerek Srin Shethkador.” And he did not move, except to hold up the relevant papers: hardcopy only, both to follow diplomatic protocol and because the last thing either human or Ktoran computer experts wanted was to have any contact between their respective systems.

    Olsirkos narrowed his eyes. “Evidently you do not understand our customs.”

    “Probably not. Evidently you do not understand ours, either. I presume you wish to have the Srin returned before I depart?”

    “You will not depart without returning the Srin.”

    “I will if you do not take these documents from me.”

    “Allow me to rephrase. You shall not be permitted to depart if you do not follow our customs and acknowledge my authority in the appropriate manner before we proceed.”

    “Allow me to explicate. If I am not allowed to leave when I choose to do so, the Dornaani will see to it that any obstructions are removed. Forcibly. And while you have our cordial respect, your authority is over your own personnel, not us.” Caine kept the documents upraised and motionless.

    The crewmembers near Olsirkos—mostly officers, from the look of them—glanced at the master of the ship. In contrast, the grey-suited personnel at the duty stations seemed desperate to focus their attention on something else—anything else.

    Olsirkos’ color had begun to change, but then the flush of anger receded—with unnatural speed, it seemed to Caine. As if that involuntary reaction had been explicitly and swiftly countermanded. Instead, the Ktoran smiled. “It would be interesting to see,” he commented in an almost diffident tone as he stepped down from the command platform, “how this encounter would have played out in the absence of your Dornaani warders.”

    “Probably less well for me,” Caine admitted, “but no different for you. With or without the support of our Dornaani friends, Tlerek Srin Shethkador will only be returned when proper protocol is observed.”

    “And if we had elected to seize your armored pinnace and take him?” Olsirkos approached slowly.

    “You would have discovered that there is a an explosive decompression setting for the Srin’s compartment, rigged to a deadman switch.”

    “Which you have just revealed, minimizing its effectiveness.”

    “True, but you would have less luck neutralizing the bombs on board the pinnace, since they are activated by both command detonation controllers and breach-sensitive count-down triggers. The blast would not only vaporize the Srin, but also severely damage this ship.”

    Evidently, Olsirkos Shethkador-vah had not been expecting that response: he halted at a distance of two meters. He also did not seem to suspect that the second threat might be a lie; rather, he seemed to reassess Caine. Who could see, in the Ktor’s subtle shift into a deceptively casual stance, his opponent’s decision to change tactics. “I know you,” Olsirkos said.

    Caine swatted away a rising edge of anxiety. “Indeed?”

    Olsirkos seemed disappointed that the rhetorical shift had not rattled the human. “Yes, but I thought you were a diplomat: a delegate to the late, disastrous Convocation where our peoples first met. Yet here you are, a member of your planet’s quaint military forces.”

    Ignoring the goad implicit in the adjective “quaint,” Caine shrugged. “Once we discerned that war was imminent, many people elected to join the fight that led to the defeat of your allies. I was simply one of them.”

    Olsirkos fought down his color once again. “You mistake our role in your late conflict with the Arat Kur and the Hkh’Rkh. We were not their allies. We merely shared common interests and provided advisors. Furthermore, the forces you claim to be invaders were invited planetside by humans—by leaders of some of your most powerful megacorporations, if the reports are accurate.”

    “The reports are accurate, but evidently incomplete. The megacorporations have no standing before the Accord, and no power to speak for the people of Earth or the broader Terran Republic. And besides, I don’t recall anyone inviting the Arat Kur and Hkh’Rkh to mount their initial sneak attack upon our naval base at Barnard’s Star. As to the matter of whether or not you were their allies, I can only report that they claim you were.”

    “Yes, the endless war of words.” Olsirkos smiled. “We have not declared war upon Earth, and only had advisors present, but you list us along with the actual invaders, who then attempt to embroil us in the hostilities by claiming an alliance that does not exist. Ask them to produce any such official documents or treaties to which we were party with them. You will find none.”

    And why am I not surprised in the least? “Whatever circumstances are claimed by our respective governments, Tlerek Srin Shethkador committed several crimes while upon Earth—and since, while in our custody.”

    “Ah, you are referring to his attacks upon yourself and others?”

    “Others?” Damn, I wish I had the time to—“Those are among the charges, yes.”

    “And perhaps they were valid. But they ceased to matter when your World Confederation accepted him as our official representative and ambassador, who then traveled to this system with your fleet. As I understand it, any alleged transgressions he may have committed before that appointment were, of necessity, pardoned. He could hardly be both a felon and an ambassador, after all.” Olsirkos’ smile was that of a man twisting a knife in an old enemy’s heart or, in this case, twisting the robotic arm Shethkador had fired into Caine’s back in Jakarta.

    “This,” Caine commented after a sigh, “has been a diverting conversation, but it grows tiresome. I take it you wish to have the Srin returned promptly?” He waggled the papers in his hand.

    Olsirkos’ smiled faded. “Yes, I do.” Without allowing his gaze to drift from Caine’s eyes, he snapped an order at a grey-suited crewman to his left. “You, autarchon, fetch the documents.”

    The grey-suited figure swung around, his eyes avoiding both Caine’s and Olsirkos’, took the papers gently but firmly from Riordan’s hands and transferred them to his superior with a slight bow of his head and bend at his waist.

    “Return to your post,” Olsirkos muttered as he glanced down at the sheaf of documents and then held it back over his shoulder. “Intendant Hekarem, see that these are in order.”

    One of the nearby officers fairly leaped forward, took the papers out of Olsirkos Shethkador-vah’s hand with an excess of care, and retreated to peruse them.

    Caine returned Olsirkos’ stare and discovered that he did not have to feign boredom anymore. The dominance duel that had started as riveting had become repetitive, then pointless, and now, childish. But damn it, I can’t look away if he doesn’t do so first, so I guess I just have to—

    Olsirkos looked past Caine toward O’Garran. His smile transformed into a smirk. “Pitiful,” he said.

    Oh, no. Little Guy, don’t you dare—

    Miles “Little Guy” O’Garran’s retaliatory inquiry was quiet, controlled, and full of rage. “Would you care to clarify?”

    Damn it, O’Garran, I told you: we’re not here to start a war; we’re here to end one. Caine cleared his throat for Olsirkos’ attention. “It may not be inconsiderate to openly comment upon a stranger in Ktoran culture,” Caine observed in a neutral voice. “It is considered offensive in ours.”

    “Oh, I am familiar enough with your cultures. But you are on our ship, and we will not put our conventions aside for your comfort.”

    “I was not asking you to.” Caine reflected that this first contact—with another branch of humanity—was, in every conceivable way, by far the most unpleasant one he’d ever experienced. “I was simply explaining my companion’s reaction.”

    “Yes. I am aware. Frankly, I was not staring, but examining, your servitor. I find it most amusing that you elect to bring the inferiorities of your culture wherever you go. Whether out of blindness or perverse pride, I cannot discern.”

    “The inferiorities of our culture?”

    “But of course.” Olsirkos gestured toward O’Garran as if he were a disappointing show dog. “The physical insufficiencies of this servitor alone proves my point. We would never tolerate a genetic deficiency that is so obvious, and so easily corrected. And if we did, we would never make such a specimen a warrior.”

    O’Garran made no sound, which worried Caine more than if he had. “You know,” Riordan said with a mirthless smile, “we have a saying on Earth about combat capability: that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” And then, over his shoulder: “Sorry, Miles; no offense intended.”

    Caine could hear the grin in Little Guy’s response. “Absolutely none taken, sir. And oo-rah.”

    Olsirkos matched Caine’s stare, smiled when he saw he was not going to win that dominance contest. “Yes, I have heard that inane axiom. All other physical parameters being equal, size is decisive.”

    “Oh, you must mean as demonstrated by the Hkh’Rkh, who average almost two and a half meters? But I wonder if the example of the Hkh’Rkh adequately supports your implication that Chief O’Garran is an inferior warfighter. Indeed, the accuracy of that claim could have been assessed during the recent fighting in Jakarta.” Riordan shrugged. “But it would be difficult to gather the relevant Hkh’Rkhs’ opinions on that matter.”

    “Why so?”

    “Because they’re all dead. Chief O’Garran was not in a position to take any prisoners that day.”

    Olsirkos blinked. And Caine responded with a widened smile. Gotcha, asshole. “May I presume that our credentials have been verified and that the initial pleasantries are over?”

    “They are indeed over.” Olsirkos’ stare, now openly hostile, reminded Caine of a chained attack dog straining at its collar. “The papers are in order. Return the Srin at once.”

    Caine folded his hands. “This will go more quickly if you observe proper diplomatic, or even military, etiquette. Such as: since we’re not under your command, you will secure our cooperation by making requests, not by giving orders.” And while your enraged eyeballs try to jump right out of your head, I will ignore you and survey my surroundings patiently—and so, observe what I can for the technical intelligence people.

    Affecting disinterested waiting, Riordan could not change the angle of his head too dramatically. He had, at most, one-hundred forty degrees of frontal exposure that he could take in, and could not be noticed looking in any one place or at any one object too long.

    The most striking item was the crew itself. Its physiognomies and demographics were markedly distinct from any human ship Caine had ever seen or heard about, in any era. The majority of the grey-uniformed drones, one of whom Olsirkos had labeled an “autarchon,” were not merely thin, but spindly: probably born, bred, and employed in zero or partial gee. Their tasks—running various ship’s systems—were logical extensions of that hypothesis: they were peforming duties they’d learned growing up on a space station, a moon, or a ship.

    Furthermore, none of the bridge crew appeared to be over thirty five, forty at the outside, and none of them were women.

    Another surprise was the absence of robots. Although consumer and industrial ’bots were rare on Terran ships, most military hulls had a sizeable complement of zero-gee floaters: ROVs that fetched, maintained systems, and carried gear about the ship. No ’bots of any kind, or their ubiquitous charging stations and ready racks, were in evidence on Ferocious Monolith.

    From what Caine could tell, the Ktoran computers had sophisticated interfaces, but there was a great deal of hard-wire control redundancy. Old-style keyboards, trackballs, and intercom handsets were tucked away in emergency access slots. Clearly, the Ktor preferred hard-wired systems. And come to think of it—

    Caine shifted his attention back to the crew, focusing on the officers this time. Sure enough, none of them had collarcoms or their analogs. Instead, they all wore some kind of multipurpose device clipped on their belt, equipped with a spooled cable. But almost no one was using them. In the time he’d been on the bridge, Riordan had seen two autarchons communicating with another part of the ship, and both times, they used one of the numerous—and seemingly anachronistic-—hardwired handsets.

    While studying the belts of the officers, Riordan also discovered that everyone over the rank of autarchon was armed. All had daggers of some sort, and almost as many had handguns, several of which looked outlandish. But the weapons were not standardized; the greater the apparent importance of any given individual—which Caine inferred to be roughly proportional to their accumulation of medals, insignias, and other official gewgaws—the more profoundly eclectic their gear and attire appeared to be. In fact, the most senior of the bridge crew were all wearing different uniforms. The only common adornment was a small, square, grey shoulder patch.

    Peripherally, Caine saw Olsirkos lean in slightly closer. The Ktor muttered, “I request that you return our Srin with all possible speed.”

    Caine did not hurry to bring his eyes around to meet with the Ktor’s. “We are pleased to comply. I will contact the pinnace and have Tlerek Srin Shethkador transferred to your custody.”

    “Do so.”

    Riordan tapped a three-tone code into his collarcom. The security detachment would commence unloading the Srin immediately upon receiving it. Making sure that O’Garran was close behind him, he made briskly for the exit.

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