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Raising Caine: Chapter Nine

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



In close orbit, and in the exosphere; V 1581 Four

    Jorge Velho, acting captain of the SS Arbitrage, cursed as the navplot stylus slipped out of his hand and—surprisingly, in his experience—fell to the deck. Granted, the speed of its fall was nothing like Earth norm. It was more like a stone sinking to the bottom of a pond, but still, it tricked his space-trained senses. He associated bridge duty with either free-fall or micro-gee, unless the engines were engaged. However, the Arbitrage’s proximity to the gas giant that bore the chart label V1581 Four allowed it to exert almost a quarter gee on them.

    Velho’s XO, Ayana Tagawa, lifted an eyebrow but said nothing. However, his helmsman, Piet Brackman, emitted a sardonic snort. “Need a lanyard for that, sir?”

    Jorge tried to turn a stern gaze on Piet, but couldn’t keep a straight face. “Just steer this barge, you réprobo. You have little room to talk. You bounced off two walls in the galley before you found your footing, yesterday.”

    “That is not a fair comparison,” Piet complained. “The toruses were still rotating then. I had gee forces in two directions.”

    “As did the rest of us who were in the toruses. And who did not fall down.”

    “Eh, go back to Belém. Sir.”

    “Right after we drop you off in Pretoria. From orbit.”

    Ayana may have sighed. She often did when the two old friends began chiding each other. Her eyes had not strayed from the nav-plot: a 2-d representation with a faux-3-d “deep screen.” “Sir, we will need to reduce our velocity by four meters per second if we are going to stay within the optimal retrieval envelope for both our tanker-tenders.”

    Jorge Velho glanced over her almost elfin shoulder. “Is Deal One lagging again?” The pilot of the lead fuel barge was a rather annoying perfectionist, her many minute corrections accumulating into noticeable delays.

    “No, Ms. Ho is right on schedule. The difficulty is with Deal Two.”

    “Piloting errors?”

    “No, sir. Mr. Vindar reports that the starboard fuel transfer umbilicus seems loose. He has been taking extra care attaching and detaching from the skimming drogues. He fears that any imprecision during those maneuvers may torque the mating rings and tear the umbilicus free of Deal Two.”

    Jorge nodded, checked the feed from the long-range camera that was tracking Deal Two. The tanker-tender, shaped like a bus half-transformed into a lifting body, would have to initiate a fuel-costly burn in order to keep its rendezvous with one of the Arbitrage’s four smaller, flatter skimmers. The skimmers were remote-operated vehicles designed to move deep into a gas giant’s exosphere and lower a drogue into the predominantly hydrogen soup below, drawing it up via pulsed electromagnetic tractoring. Any delay in transferring the harvested hydrogen meant a delay in them returning to their next run, and so on and so forth, causing the logistical dominoes to fall ever further and faster.

    “No,” Jorge decided. “We’re cutting our losses. Bring Deal Two back now. Inform Deal One that she is to finish her current fuel transfer from skimmer three and follow Deal Two back to the barn.”

    “Sir, that will seriously impact our projected refueling time.”

    Jorge nodded. “Agreed, but tell me: if we lose one drogue’s load, how much will our mission be impacted?”

    Ayana returned his nod. “Yes, sir. You are correct: the time it would take to replace the umbilical would be worse.”

    Piet shook his head. “Much worse. I’m not even sure we have a spare umbilical in stores.”

    Jorge stared at the deck, was suddenly struck by a mental image of the pale, jaundiced gas giant looming far beneath his feet. “And CoDevCo managed to blank much of that data before Arbitrage was impounded for use as a military auxiliary.”

    Ayana looked at Velho out of the corner of her eye. “Kozakowski might know.”

    Yes, indeed he might, Jorge allowed, but I hate having that man within ten meters of me. Aloud: “Kozakowski might know, but I’m not sure he’d tell the truth.”

    “So what’s new?” Piet asked sourly.

    Jorge smiled. “My point exactly. Mr. Kozakowski’s loyalty is to the Colonial Development Combine—”

    “—which makes him a traitor,” Piet supplied.

    “—and he has not been forthcoming, despite being granted immunity from prosecution.”

    Ayana had finished sending the new orders to Deal One and Deal Two. “What exactly did he do, more than any of the other executives, that helped the invaders?”

    Jorge shrugged. “I am not sure. Any specific charges were suppressed by the time the Auxiliary Re-crewing Command forwarded his dossier to me.” But there was scuttlebutt, as there always is between captains, military and civilian alike. And I would not be at all surprised if the rumors are true: that Kozakowski had been a CoDevCo liaison to, and factotum for, the Arat Kur, and maybe even the Ktor. Although it was hard to see how a human would have come to serve the Ktor, who were reputedly ice-worms that traveled about in environmental tanks that resembled oversized water-heaters on treads.

    Kozakowski had been CoDevCo’s master aboard (but not captain of) the Arbitrage when she was intercepted by a Russlavic Federation cruiser, so it was quite probable that he knew if spare fuel transfer umbilicals were in the ships’ stores. But still—

    Piet Brackman jutted his prominent chin toward the ventral view monitor: the ever-approaching rim of the gas giant seemed to be fading away, being consumed by the blackness of space itself. “Approaching the terminator, Captain.”

    “Ten minutes to loss of lascom and line of sight back to the fleet assets near planet two,” Tagawa added.

    “Very well.” Protocol dictated Velho’s next orders. “Ms. Tagawa, initiate contact with provisional CINCSYS and advise them we are about to go dark. Attach the estimated time we shall emerge from planet four’s comm-shadow. Request immediate confirmation of receipt of our transmission, and pending day-codes. And—” Velho paused: Tagawa turned, obviously sensing how his tone veered toward hesitation rather than finality.

    “And yes, Ms. Tagawa, we shall do as you suggest: call Kozakowski to the bridge.”



    Ulpreln struggled to keep the Red Lurker’s bow steady. “Apologies, Srina Perekmeres.”

    Nezdeh nodded, leaned over so she could read the helm instruments. “I read the wind speed in excess of eight hundred kilometers per hour. Imperfect control is not merely understandable; it is unavoidable. And as regards the formality of your address: we shall dispense with that until we once again have our own compounds and courts. Then, you may style me so nobly.”

    Ulpreln half turned from his console, a small smile sending wrinkles into the crescent of his cheek. “As you wish…Nezdeh.”

    The young Evolved’s voice was not insolent; it was appreciative. This was consistent with her greater plan: to bind the group’s loyalty to her. She wished Brenlor no ill, but dominion had to be split evenly between them, or she would not have enough power to govern his rash reactions and overly bold plans.

    From his post at the sensor station, Sehtrek pointed to one of the secondary screens. “Our target, Nezdeh.”

    In the overhead, or spaceside, view, there was a longish spindle of pristine white, distant through the misty atmosphere.

    “Ulpreln, hold relative position. Sehtrek, maximum magnification.”

    “Resolution will be poor, Nezdeh.”

    “Let it be poor. Show me what is there.”

    The indistinct spindle was replaced by a long, batonlike ship: a typical human design. The ship’s own fuel, engines, and power plants—and all their radioactivity—were clustered at the stern, behind two great disk-shaped shields. The habitation toruses and command section were located at the bow. In between, large fuel tanks and a few cargo modules followed the long thin keel, giving the impression of railway cars on a great length of track. Relatively close by, a fuel tender was returning to the ship, heading for one of two large docking cradles just forward of the skimmed fuel tankage. An identical craft was approaching at a leisurely pace from the opposite direction.

    “Range to objective and predominant wind speed?” Nezdeh demanded.

    “Range is just under eight kiloklicks. Wind speed averages three hundred forty kilometers per hour, plus or minus fifty.”

    Nezdeh nodded and studied the improving image. The human ship’s rotational habitats confirmed her cost-cutting, megacorporate origins: the after-torus was a solid design, whereas the forward one was actually a hexagon. Each side was a framework cradling various modules, most of which were habmods. Most importantly, neither the torus nor the gigantic hexagon were rotating: standard procedure when a ship was under thrust.

    “Acceleration of target?”

    “None. It’s engines are in readiness, but thrust has been discontinued. I believe they are trying to facilitate an earlier retrieval of their tankers and skimmer ROVs.”

    Could it get any better? “I make our intercept ETA approximately twenty minutes if we sustain three point three gee constant and then counterboost at max.”

    “Allowing for buffeting, and the gas giant’s decreasing gravitational pull, that is a reasonable estimate, Nezdeh.”

    “Wait for the furthest tanker to be secured in its cradles. Then commence intercept as soon as you have a clear trough between the storm cells and with minimal particulate density. We want as direct and unimpeded a path as possible.”

    “As you order, Nezdeh.”

    She toggled the intercom to the EVA ready bay. “Brenlor.”

    “Here. How long?”

    “I would say twenty-five minutes. Are you prepared to strap in? We will be closing at 3.5 gee sustained.”

    “We are suited. Strapping in.”

    She signed off, turned to Idrem at the weapons console. “Readiness?”

    “UV laser warm and ready for full charge. All six directional blisters test green. Rail gun same.” He met her eyes. “I should turn the weapons over to Tegrese.”

    Tegrese moved toward the weapons station, but kept her eyes on Nezdeh for approval.

    Nezdeh frowned. “I mean no slight, Tegrese, but Idrem, you are our best gunner.”

    He nodded. “Yes. But I am needed more urgently on the EVA team.”

    Which was, regrettably, true. Not because Idrem had excellent EVA and personal weapon skills—although he did—but because someone with sufficient authority had to be present to ensure that Brenlor’s actions in securing the Arbitrage did not become too destructive. Nezdeh looked away so that neither Idrem nor Tegrese would see her regret. “Go then, Idrem. Tegrese, stand to the weapons.”

    “Yes, Nezdeh. Shall I ready missiles, as well?”

    Nezdeh shook her head. “No. They are too imprecise.” She resumed poring over the intelligence and confidential files they had on the SS Arbitrage, courtesy of the many collaborators they had suborned within the ranks of the Colonial Development Combine. Where greed is great, corruption is simple, as the Progenitors’ axiom had it.

    Ulpreln almost sounded excited. “Nezdeh, the second Aboriginal tanker is in contact with the shift-carrier, and I have an acceptable meteorological window.”

    Without glancing away from the data that had been furnished by traitorous Aboriginals, she reached behind her command chair for the acceleration straps. At the same time, she began consciously adjusting her blood flow to aid her vacuum suit’s anti-pooling systems. “Sehtrek, pass the word: commence acceleration compensation protocols.”

    She kept reading the human data and the target updates as the announcement went out over the intercom. When it was done, she glanced at Ulpreln. “Activate the navigational holosphere, close tactical scale.” He complied: a three-dimensional representation of the surrounding ten kiloklicks blinked into existence at the open center of the bridge. She assessed the conditions and smiled: perfect. At last, the axe of fate swings for, rather than against, the fortunes of House Perekmeres.

    She elevated her chin slightly. “Commence intercept.”

    And then, even though she was prepared for it, three point five gees of upward acceleration slammed half the air out of her lungs.



    “Captain Velho, please join me at the plot.” Ayana Tagawa’s voice sounded unusually constricted.

    Moving close alongside her, Jorge Velho was briefly afflicted by a familiar melancholy twinge. Proximity to Ayana reminded him of just how profoundly she did not return his romantic interest. But that sensation did not survive his first glimpse of the new blip in the navplot. “Is that a malfunction?” he asked.

    “No, sir. It is not. I have confirmed it with radar, although the return is oddly compromised, in much the same way that stealth coatings dampen and distort detection.”

    Velho stared at the blip. “But this is not possible. A powered object moving up at us from out of the gas giant?”

    Piet had craned his neck to get a look. “Nothing can survive being inside a gas giant. Go too low and you’re crushed. But at altitude, the flying conditions are the equivalent of being in a non-stop hurricane.” Which Velho knew to be an understatement, whether Piet intended it that way or not. Large gas giants such as v 1581.4 usually had relative wind speeds of up to five hundred kilometers per hour. Especially turbulent ones often exceeded one thousand.

    But in the navplot, the impossible contact kept coming up at them. And it was coming fast. “Cross sectional analysis: does the database have a ship-type identification?”

    Ayana shook her head sharply. “No recognition from the ship form database, and we have the postwar update running. Also, while the approaching craft’s thrust agency is clearly magnetically accelerated plasma, this specific signature is unknown. But the metrics indicate that the energy density of the drive is unprecedented. Nothing in our inventory, or even the Arat Kur’s, can put out that kind of power, given the limits of its size.”

    Damn it, I’m going to sound like a madman reporting this contact, but—“Ms. Tagawa, is there a comm relay platform that we can send to from our current position?”

    “No, sir. All ancillary comm and sensor platforms were seeded near or at the approaches to planet two, where the fleet engaged the Arat Kur. Nothing’s been deployed out here yet.”

    And why should there be? We plan on leaving Arat Kur space as soon as possible. But that meant there was no one to alert, no one to call for help. SS Arbitrage was all alone. With one chilling exception. “Ms. Tagawa, please hail the contact. All frequencies, all languages and codes. Don’t forget to include the Accord code.”

    As she did so, Piet turned from the helm. “Jorge, whoever is on that ship is not interested in talking with us.”

    Velho nodded. “I agree.”

    “Then why try?”

    “Because we know nothing about them. So any reply gives us more knowledge than we have now.” He turned toward Ayana. “Response?”

    “No response, sir. And I don’t think we’re going to get one. The contact’s telemetry suggests intentions that, as Mr. Brackman speculates, preclude communication.”

    Jorge felt his heavy brows bunching against each other as he frowned. “What is its telemetry?”

    “Range, closing; bearing, constant.”

    It took a moment for Velho to recall what that crisp definition actually meant. “It’s going to ram us?”

    Tagawa shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Or board us.”

    “That’s impossible.” He hesitated, remembering some of the stories that had come out of the Epsilon Indi system just after the war. “Well, it’s nearly impossible.”

    Ayana nodded. “Yes, sir, that is the conventional wisdom.” She pointed into the plot again. “But this craft is wholly unconventional. I am not sure the same rules apply. And it is difficult to conjecture why a ship that can withstand immersion in the upper stratosphere of a gas giant and capable of such extraordinary thrust would expend itself in a ramming attack. Which leaves one logical alternative: she is attempting a rendezvous. And if we refuse to let her dock…” Tagawa’s voice trailed off; the conclusion of her analysis was inescapable.

    Piet cleared his throat. “So: what do we do? I’d like to suggest running like hell, but we don’t have ten percent of that hull’s acceleration.”

    “First,” Velho announced at the end of a sigh, “we start screaming for help.”

    Tagawa raised one eyebrow. “We are in the communications shadow of the gas giant, sir.”

    “Yes, our lascom is useless, but if we start broadcasting a wide-dispersal distress signal now, we could reach any covert patrols or classified microsensors that might be lurking out here. In the meantime, we’ll give our visitors something to worry about.”

    “Such as?” Piet sounded doubtful.

    “Such as having to work to catch us, even if we can’t outrun them. Max burn on the main drive, Piet.”

    “Sir,” began Piet, whose sudden formality meant he was getting seriously scared, “as per your orders when we cut thrust to effect retrieval of the tankers and skimmers, all our plants are now in power-saving mode. We can’t reach full thrust until we get to eighty-five percent of maximum power plant output, and that will take at least fifteen minutes.”

    “I am aware. Maximum means you get me as much thrust as you can, as fast as you can. Also, accelerate the skimmers and put them into a close slingshot orbit, the closest they’ll take without being pulled in. And Ayana, I want them running their transponders in distress mode, non-stop.”

    She nodded, understanding. “So that the intruder must choose between chasing us or catching the skimmers before they get around the gas giant’s far terminator and out of its broadcast shadow.”

    “Yes, and in the meantime, I want the point-defense fire mounts brought to bear. At the intruder’s rate of closure, we’ll be able to use them as ship-to-ship weapons in about eight minutes. Now, where’s Mr. Kozakowski?”

    “Just arrived, sir,” came the corporate factotum’s voice from the hatchway.

    Jorge turned, nodded tightly and wondered how long the unctuous owl of a man had been listening just beyond the hatchway. “You received an update on our situation?”

    “Which situation do you mean, Captain? The umbilical hoses or the unidentified intruder?”

    “For now, our concern is solely with the latter. Your technicians are to meet ours back at the cargo freight module, just forward of the cargo cradles.”

    “Very well. What is their task?”

    Kozakowski is the last human I want to reveal this to, but now I have no choice. “When we commandeered the ship, we took the precaution of not just refitting it as a tanker. We added some cargo modules of our own.”

    “I have noticed.”

    Snide bastard. “Did you also notice that one of them is auto-deployable?”

    Kozakowski frowned. “You mean it is a cargo module that can be triggered to release its payload into free space? That is usually a military variant, is it not?”

    “It most certainly is. As a precaution, we were tasked to carry a small number of ship-to-ship drones in the autodeployable module. But it needs to be powered up and patched into our command system, first.”

    “So we have some real weapons?” Piet almost shouted.

    Velho smiled. “As soon as we activate the module’s integral subsystems, we can send out a little fleet of our own.”

    Kozakowski’s smile was dim: he was clearly unhappy that this information had been withheld from him. “I shall get right on it, sir.” He nodded and moved toward the hatchway that led off the bridge and into the keel-following transport tube.

    “Mr. Kozakowski, can’t you coordinate your technicians from up here?”

    “Perhaps, but many of them are, well, suspicious of your prize crew. And although your personnel are obviously the experts when it comes to an auto-deployable cargo module, mine are familiar with the particulars, and idiosyncrasies, of the Arbitrage. So I think it wisest that I be present to ensure that my crewpersons cooperate smoothly with yours, given that our lives are at stake. Wouldn’t you agree?”

    “Absolutely. Go at once.”

    His smile still wooden, Kozakowski left the bridge.

    —Just as Ayana’s unflappably calm voice cracked under the stress of an urgent report: “Intruder’s energy levels are spiking. Our hull sensors detect a low-power laser painting us: they’re acquiring ladar target lock, sir. And probably readying a beam weapon of some kind. I recommend—”

    And then the world wrenched violently sideways.

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