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Raising Caine: Chapter Eight

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



In the exosphere; V 1581 Four

    Hirkun Morsessar, Tagmator of the Aegis patrol hunter Red Lurker, stared at the visual feed from the bow: swirling, dimly lit whorls and clouds. The violent collage was mostly white, but some of the drifts and plumes were bilious. Others were tinged with ochre. Together, they recalled the miasmas that hung about the Creche worlds’ shabbiest, unventilated pipehouses, all tucked away in grimy urban helot-warrens.

    A sharp bump, followed quickly by a sideways shuddering, reminded Hirkun that, despite appearances, they were actually in the upper reaches of the medium-sized gas giant that occupied the fourth orbit around the star the Aboriginals had labeled Cygnus 2, or V 1518. “Attend to your instruments,” Morsessar warned the pilot. The Autarch-assigned helmsman—a lictor, equal in status to a huscarl but without affiliation to any House—complied as best he could, but the buffeting down-drafts from the port side were patternless. They defied both his and the flight computer’s abilities to predict and stabilize their flight.

    “Apologies, Tagmator.” The hush in the House-less pilot’s voice sounded more like the product of fear than regret.

    This was satisfying and proper. Technically, the maximum disciplinary action available to Hirkun was comparatively limited; lictors were the ward-chattels of the Autarchs themselves, and so could not be harmed too greatly without inviting their masters’ censure and consequent reprimands from one’s own House and Family. But this lictor was sufficiently fearful of Hirkun’s power, even so: one of the few gratifying elements of this accursed observation mission. A misnomer if there ever was one. Just how much observing can one do from inside a gas giant? “Keep your course, helm; you have strayed twelve degrees from our assigned heading. And make our journey smoother. Exercise greater powers of anticipation.”

    “Yes, Tagmator.”

    An impossible feat, of course, but one never maintained dominion by lowering expectations or even making them reasonable. We exceed our limits only when forced to do so, as the Progenitors’ Axioms had it. And since Hirkun’s life and fortunes depended, for now, upon this crew, then it was certainly in his best interests to—

    The iris valve to the small bridge scalloped open: a tall, black-haired woman entered and sank, brooding, into the seat that doubled as the XO’s position and the backup sensor and comm ops station. She did not make eye contact with Hirkun.

    “Problems, Antendant Letlas?”

    “No, Tagmator,” the willowy Antendant answered curtly.

    “Antendant, if you wish a recommendation that will aid your ascent to Intendant-vah, do not trouble your commander with indirect communication. Speak frankly and at once: what troubles you?”

    Letlas sat straighter. “Apologies, Tagmator Morsessar. I am annoyed at myself.”

    That was unexpected. “How so?”

    She glanced at the pilot, the only other person on the bridge. “I am uncertain that my concerns are best shared in this place.”

    Ah. Hirkun turned to the lictor. “Pilot, monitor the Aboriginals’ broadcast frequencies through your helmet. Increase the volume to maximum. Be certain you cannot hear me—even my orders.”

    “Yes, Tagmator,” he replied, making haste to comply.

    Once the lictor had settled the light duty helmet over his head, with the blasting static still clearly audible, Hirkun nodded. “Proceed, Antendant.”

    “Tagmator, I am unsure that our chief sensor operator is fully competent.”

    “You mean Nezdeh, the senior Agra?”

    “Yes, she. Tagmator, I shall speak further only at your express encouragement.”

    That cautious phrasing puzzled Hirkun. “Antendant, that is the formula whereby an Intendant—or an aspirant, such as yourself—warns one of the Evolved that to continue might involve speaking ill of another one of the Evolved.”

    Letlas avoided Hirkun’s eyes. “It is as you say, Tagmator.”

    Hirkun was too surprised to suppress the frown that he felt bending lines into his face. “Speak clearly, Antendant: do you suspect that Agra Nezdeh is Evolved, but masquerading as non-Evolved?” Impossible.

    “This is why I was irresolute in expressing myself, Tagmator Morsessar. I know full well how absurd this must sound. But I have watched her manipulate the controls as she tracks the Aboriginal craft that is orbiting just above us, while we remain beneath the storm heads that block their rudimentary sensors.”

    “Yes, and so far, she has done an adequate job.”

    “Yes, Tagmator. She does an adequate job. But no more. It is not the place of us non-Evolved to merely perform adequately in their specialization. Since we lack the onerous responsibilities of ensuring dominion, we have the luxury of becoming true specialists. Nezdeh has not done so, but rather, shows a great breadth of competencies.” Letlas paused. “It is more akin to the skill diversity routinely associated with the Evolved.”

    “Even among Intendants, to say nothing of huscarls, some non-Evolved have far more promise as generalists than as specialists. It can be frustrating. It can also prove invaluable.”

    Letlas looked away. “Tagmator, I do not wish to seem obstinate, but—”

    “Your insight is sought, Antendant. Speak your mind.”

    “If Nezdeh were young, I would be less concerned. But by her age, a trend toward generalization at the expense of specialization would have been noticed. It would have been either corrected or exploited. But for her to come to this ship, at the last moment, touted as a sensor and communications specialist when she is, at best, adequate—this fills me with misgivings.”

    Hirkun nodded. “It is peculiar.” He did not add his own misgivings, which did not concern Nezdeh’s skill levels so much as the peculiar manner in which she had been added to Red Lurker’s complement. The veteran communications specialist who had been part of the patrol hunter’s rota for the last three years—Lokagon Emren Arrepsur-vah—had made his final return to space only four days before Red Lurker had been deployed. Wrapped in the winding sheets of a defeated duelist, Emren Arrepsur-vah had been pushed toward the winking red speck that was V 1581, four and half light hours away. By the time his remains were embraced and immolated by that red dwarf star, all memory of him, and the House to which he had aspired to add his geneline, would be long gone.

    Nezdeh Kresessek-vah had been Arrepsur-vah’s logical replacement, recommended by the Aegis database as both capable and seasoned. Her slightly greater age and her status as ’vah—aspirant to having her geneline formally integrated into that of House Kresessek—had led Hirkun to conjecture that she was a promising Intendant, about to come into her own. However, now he began to reconsider: it was possible, given her rank, that she was in fact Evolved, a refugee from a House so badly defeated that it had been Extirpated. If so, then that would certainly explain why her skill set was marked more by breadth than depth. He would have to investigate her origins more closely upon the return of Ferocious Monolith.

    But Hirkun perceived that her current performance might reveal other useful clues as well. “Antendant Letlas, is there any sign that her skills are improving? For instance, was she better than adequate in detecting the departure of Ferocious Monolith earlier today?”

    Letlas forestalled a shrug. “Tagmator Morsessar, her performance was improved. But I am unsure if it was because her skill with the sensors is improving, or because she had maintained a log of Monolith’s telemetry as it preaccelerated to its shift point. She knew exactly where to find the shift-bloom in her sensors. She may have known approximately when to look, as well.”

    Which was not overly peculiar. The customary preacceleration protocols would, if followed, provide a fair estimate of the time at which the ship’s velocity—which was to say, its increase above rest-mass—reached the point at which it could engage its shift drive. But typically, sensor operators did not seek the bloom except to confirm that a ship had shifted when and where it said it would. “Are you saying that Nezdeh pinpointed the shift-bloom even before Ferocious Monolith’s tight-beam shift notification reached us?”

    “Yes, Tagmator.”

    That was a fairly impressive sensor achievement. But it was also an expenditure of effort without any meaningful gain. “Has Nezdeh put us at risk of discovery by the Aboriginals? Has she been overly bold in shadowing the Aboriginal shift carrier that is refueling above us, the Arbitrage?”

    “No, Tagmator. If anything, she has been remarkably circumspect in the performance of that particular task. Indeed, she has shown her greatest skills in trailing the megacorporate craft at considerable distance while remaining beneath various meteorological disturbances. She was able to track it by the slight ionization path that the craft’s passage leaves as it moves through the thin particulate field at the highest level of the gas giant’s exosphere.” Letlas paused. “Given the ease with which she did it, I suspect she has performed that task many times before.”

    Hirkun heard the implicit warning in Letlas’ observation. “It may be that she is one of the Evolved, and that she has been displaced by the dissolution of her original House. And I intend to inquire into that matter when Monolith returns for us. But in the meantime, there is no cause for alarm.”

    “I hear the dominance and wisdom in your words,” recited Letlas carefully. “I was simply perplexed that her dossier contained no special mention of her origins, as would be customary if she were both Evolved and an Arrogate.”

    Hirkun was resolved not to be schooled by an upstart, a mere aspirant to the ranks of the Intendant class, but he could not bring himself to rebuke her for being both prudent and perceptive. The lack of greater detail surrounding Nezdeh’s posting to his command was atypical. “Antendant, your input has been noted. You shall now put this matter from your mind. After all,” he waved his hand at the screen’s depiction of onrushing vaporous drifts, “we are in the high guard position within a gas-giant, unable to exit without risking detection by the Aboriginals, and without any means to leave the system until Monolith returns to covertly extract us.” He leaned back in the wide commander’s seat, affecting more ease than he felt. “Even if the irregularities in Nezdeh’s posting were, somehow, indicative of a threat, just what could she—what could anyone—hope to achieve in circumstances such as ours?”

    The iris valve dilated as if in direct response to Hirkun’s rhetorical question, opening without the prefatory activation tone. Which is not possible, unless—

    Hirkun was on his feet before his startled blink was completed. He measured—only semi-consciously—the rate of the ship’s forward momentum, and how that would complicate his rise into a spin-and-draw crouch. Without so much as a wobble, his Evolved senses combined to place him in two-thirds cover behind the command couch’s heavy back, his liquid-propellant handgun up, his thumb already adjusting the zero-gee setting to a full gravity regime. He felt a satisfied smile on his face, exulting in the lethal grace with which he now drew a bead on the iris valve—

    And felt two impacts in his chest, very near his heart, which staggered him enough to throw off his aim: three percussive blasts from his pistol drilled expanding rounds into the valve’s coaming, less than ten centimeters from where Agra Nezdeh’s cheek was resting, her feet braced, her body mostly behind the bulkhead. Two other recent rotations into his crew—the Evolved Antendant cousins Vranut and Ulpreln Balkether—had rolled into the room under the cover of her fire, were already rising with the speed one would expect from their genelines.

    Hirkun willed the circulation in the vicinity of his clustered wounds to decrease, boosted both the arterial and venous peristalsis to compensate for the redirection of that blood flow, triggered a full spectrum endorphin and adrenal cascade, and, in the same moment, expanded his peripheral awareness to take stock of Letlas’ reaction to the mutiny.

    She was sheltering behind her seat, her hand conspicuously far away from her sidearm. No real surprise: she is no fool.

    Using countervailing hormones to steady the incipient tremor from the adrenal flood, Hirkun tracked over toward Nezdeh. She ducked behind the starboard bulkhead—

    —Just as Idrem, the Red Lurker’s senior lictor, leaned around the port side rim of the iris valve with a needler. The coil rifle emitted two of its characteristic high frequency snaps. Hirkun felt two hammers rip through his body, one shattering his left hip, the other blasting through his right lung.

    As he fell, struggling against the loss of control, he appreciated the conservative tactics that had been used to kill him. The mutineers had known that they would not have sufficient aiming time to be sure of scoring immediately lethal hits upon him. So they had concentrated on inflicting wounds that cost him initiative and reflexes to counteract. That, in turn, had allowed Nezdeh—the apparent ringleader—to stay exposed just long enough to draw his attention away from where Idrem emerged with the far more lethal, but less handy, needler. The traitor had aimed, wisely, at the center of mass: the shatered hip eliminated even an Evolved’s ability to stand, and the punctured lung forced Hirkun to choose between conscious control of blood loss, or making a counterattack. In such a rapid exchange as this, there was no time to sequence them: it was one or the other.

    Hirkun resolved to shoot as he fell to the deck. He missed, but came close enough to keep the mutineers’ heads down.

    But only for a moment. As the Red Lurker’s master converted his fall into a roll that put him behind his command couch, Vranut Balkether popped around the far edge of Letlas’s couch and fired his own liquid propellant handgun into the prostrate, struggling Hirkun. The Tagmator tried to concentrate on how many of that quick flurry of rounds had hit him, where, and how to respond. I have lost, but as long as I live, I can bargain. And lie. Vengeance can come later.

    But he felt control of his body slipping away along with his strength and the fixity of purpose that had allowed him to track and respond to his numerous injuries. He saw Nezdeh’s face loom over him and he knew, with dull certainty, that there would be no bargaining.

    As her pistol came up level with his forehead, Hirkun reflected that here was the proof of yet another Progenitor Axiom, the one that explained why women should not be sent on field missions:

    They are simply too dangerous.



    Nezdeh, late of House Perekmeres, stepped over Hirkun Morsessar’s corpse, fired two rounds into the cowering pilot, and then leveled the weapon at Letlas. “You. Antendant.”

    Letlas made the appropriate prostration with reassuring swiftness and enthusiasm. “I hear your words, Agat—no, Berema Nezdeh Kresessek-vah.”

    She laughed. “What an inanity. That you style me a Lady of a House for which I am still ostensibly a ’vah, an Aspirant? Your eagerness to flatter leads you to foolishness.”

    “I mean to respect, not flatter. But I know not what to call you, Berema.”

    Nezdeh considered. “There is merit in that point. Scant merit, but merit still. Look up, Antendant, and tell me: do you wish to live?”

    Letlas looked up. Before her mouth opened with the answer, her eyes had made it clear. “I wish to live, Berema Nezdeh.”

    As if there had been an iota of doubt. “And will you take service with House Perekmeres, as a probationary Antendant?”

    Letlas stammered. “With—with House Perekmeres?”

    “Is your hearing impaired?”

    “But House Perekmeres was Extirpated, Fearsome Berema.”

    Ah, she is catching on: she does not know my former rank, but has deduced that I was high enough in the genelines of Perekmeres to warrant the honorific “Fearsome.” She thinks quickly. “Extirpation was inflicted upon us,” Nezdeh said crisply as more of her mutineers entered the bridge. “That does not mean I accept it, any more than I accepted the vile touch of the Kresessek abomutations who hoped to add my geneline to theirs in the old manner. Now, I shall ask it one more time, since your wits seem addled: will you take service with House Perekmeres?”

    “I…I will, Fearsome Berema.”

    “Excellent. Rise. Now, enter the commander’s access code for the engineering and helm controls.”

    “I am but an Antendant, Fearsome Berema.”

    As Idrem came to stand beside Nezdeh and the deck jounced through another patch of extended turbulence, she brought her pistol to bear on the Antendant once again. “I have observed the bridge routines and who was present, or not, when various systems were accessed or terminated. The XO naturally has a separate but equal set of command codes, but he was the first I slew. There is one crewmember, often of lower rank, who also has access to the commander’s codes.” She smiled. “I am familiar with these protocols, having captained ships before. You were present at the correct times, and are the correct rank with the correct role. You are the keeper of the codes. I have eliminated all other possibilities. Do not try my patience, Antendant. Enter the overrides.”

    Letlas averted her eyes, moved to the blood-and-bone-spattered commander’s console, and entered the codes. She looked up. “How may I serve House Perekmeres now, Fearsome Berema?”

    “This way,” Nezdeh replied. She raised the pistol and fired two rounds into the Antendant’s chest.

    Letlas gasped as awkwardly as she fell, blood pumping out of two craters that bracketed her sternum.

    Nezdeh stepped closer to watch the light leave the Antendant’s eyes. “You hesitated. Had you meant to serve Perekmeres, you would have rejoiced in the opportunity to comply immediately, and thereby prove your loyalty.” Letlas was either wheezing for breath or trying to speak, but it did not matter: moments after Nezdeh had pronounced the epitaph of her insufficiency, the Antendant was dead.

    Nezdeh looked about the bridge. One cannot dominate from behind a wall of silence, went the axiom of the First Progenitors. She kept faith with their wisdom: “Ulpreln: your hand to the helm. When the bow is steady, don the pilot’s helmet so that you may listen in on the briefing.” She unreeled and spoke into her beltcom as she waved for two of the mutineers to clear the three bodies. “Brenlor Srin Perekmeres?”

    Her earbud crackled with the reply. “Here. Do you have dominion, Nezdeh Srina Perekmeres?”

    She smiled. “I do. The rest of the crew?”

    “Sworn to service or dead.”

    “Were any of the uncertain members swayed to our side?”

    Brenlor’s pause was pregnant. “Not reliably so.”

    Nezdeh closed her eyes: Brenlor was marginally her superior and had a full measure of what she considered House Perekmeres’ most characteristic negative trait: male impulsivity. Which was often expressed through bloodthirsty aggression. “This was necessary, Srin?”

    His response had a discernible edge. “It was. Besides, the poison meant to incapacitate the off-duty crew was fatal in three cases.”

    Nezdeh glanced at Idrem, who shrugged: “As I warned from the outset, dosing and individual susceptibility were variables beyond our control. The outcome was uncertain, at best.”

    She nodded. “Brenlor, we should hold our briefing promptly. The orbital path of the human shift carrier will soon be optimal.”

    “Understood. I shall meet you in the ready room.”

    Nezdeh glanced behind her at the entry to the small compartment which served as commander’s office and briefing chamber. “We shall be there.” She moved in that direction, turned to the rest of the team that had stormed the bridge. “Follow me.”



    Nezdeh did not move her eyes to observe the faces of the Evolved and the Intendants wedged in tightly around the briefing table: she merely expanded her peripheral awareness so that the edges of her vision were nearly as acute as the focal core. As Brenlor’s assertions of House Perekmeres’ imminent resurgence veered increasingly toward stentorian bombast, she surveyed her assets:

    Idrem: indispensable and crafty. Unlike Brenlor, who had fled House Perekmeres’ precincts prior to its Extirpation, Idrem had managed to stage his own apparent death, using vat-grown tissue and blood to leave a forensically convincing residue. He had then taken refuge in the one place that subsequent investigation was unlikely to find him: among the ranks of the Autarchs’ Aegis forces. He had made his supplication in the guise of a huscarl left masterless by the liquidation of a lesser Family from an entirely different House. By the time the Extirpation occurred, he had been wearing the Aegis grey for nearly a month.

    Nezdeh did not like admitting it, but Idrem was probably her intellectual equal, possibly her superior. That thought rankled, but also, oddly, titillated. He was not the most athletic or vigorous of the Evolved, but he was also immune to the unremitting need for making dominance displays. The more impetuous of the Evolved males presumed this indicated passivity, and so were ready to dismiss Idrem. But Nezdeh realized the true source of Idrem’s quiet: utter self-assurance in himself and his competence. That made him far more dangerous than most of the boisterous males around him, for he could not be manipulated by his temperament.

    Of the other four Evolved, three were young and from Families that were comparatively distant from the progenitorial root of the true House of Perekmeres: first cousins Vranut and Ulpreln Balkether, and an aunt that was their chronological junior, Zurur Deosketer. In a few more generations, their genelines would have become so dilute that their offspring would have had to seek other fortunes. But now, with the blood of the House of Perekmeres wiped from the marble halls of both its greatest and least Hegemons, their fortunes were ascendant: scarcity of a geneline, like any other resource, greatly enhanced its value.

    The fourth Evolved, and the third woman on the mission, Tegrese Hreteyarkus, had also been an Arrogate—a war prize—of Perekmeres’ Extirpation, and passed to a minor Family of House Vasarkas. Unlike the rape-minded Srinu that Nezdeh had repulsed in House Kresessek, House Vasarkas had allowed Tegrese to exist like a bird in a shabbily gilded cage. Blending her geneline with theirs was left as a matter of her will.

    But her will was focused upon escaping her hybrid existence as part-prisoner and part-chattel. She had volunteered for wet-work and received it by convincing her overseers that she meant to learn whether she wished to serve House Vasarkas as a Breedmistress or adventurer. Her actual intent had been to acquire the freedom and mobility to seek out other survivors of her House and to plot its restoration.

    Two others, Sehtrek and Pehthrum, were former Intendants of the House. Since their genelines had not been Elevated prior to the Extirpation, they had been deemed reliable by the Autarchal Aegis and were Arrogated to it. Their assignment as lictors to Ferocious Monolith had been arranged with little effort almost four months ago.

    Nezdeh leaned back. Nine persons, and two of them Low Bred, with another six to be added after the first phase of their mission was complete. So, altogether, fifteen renegades of the purged House Perekmeres against the might of the Hegemons of the Great Houses, and the juridical authority of the Autarchs, whose ostensible neutrality was a farce. Autarchal decisions almost invariably aligned with the interests of the Hegemons. If Nezdeh’s small band could contend with those daunting odds, it would be a story worth telling—if any of them lived to tell it.

    When Brenlor finished his oration, Nezdeh stood slowly. “We all know the odds, and we all know what must be done. We have excellent intelligence on our first target, and it is utterly unsuspecting.” She glared around the table. “But do not underestimate this foe. The Arat Kur and Hkh’Rkh did and they are now paying for it.

    “We cannot afford such payments. We have no place to which we may retreat, for there is only one outcome that does not end in our death: absolute victory. So: no bravado. We cannot afford it. No unnecessary destruction: again, we cannot afford it. No wasted time: yet again, we cannot afford it. When those who shall carry our restored genelines into the future speak of this battle, they shall recall it not as an arrogant gamble, but as a precise, clinical operation. And that our glory lay in the cold-eyed achievement of our objective.”

    The eyes around the table had kindled to her words, whereas Brenlor’s had left them merely smoldering. She was speaking the truth, and they knew it.

    Nezdeh pushed back from the conference table. “Report to your stations.” She checked her wrist-comp. “We are in position. It is time.”

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