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Raising Caine: Chapter Fourteen

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



Far orbit; Sigma Draconis Two

    Caine Riordan watched as a crab-armed cargo tug grabbed a habitation module from the Lincoln’s forward cargo racks, leaving a gap in the serried ranks of its fellows. The tug’s operator was quite accomplished: even as its manipulator arms half rotated the habmod, the tug was already boosting away from the human shift-carrier and angling into a trajectory that would take it toward the nearby Slaasriithi ship.

    Downing approached the gallery window, nodded at the tug as it overtook their shuttle on a roughly parallel course. “I believe that habmod is your new home. It should be in place by the time we rendezvous with the Slaasriithi.”

    The deck moved slightly under their feet; their own craft had cut thrust, probably to let the tug get farther ahead. Riordan reached out for a handle, steadied his body against a slow drift up from the deck. “So where are the other warm bodies who’ll be going down the rabbit’s hole with me?”

    As if in answer to his question, Ben Hwang drifted into the room. “I’m here. Can’t say I’m enjoying the ride, though.” He moved slowly toward the gallery window, carefully towing himself from one hand hold to the next.

    Downing watched the Nobel prize winner’s cautious progress. “Rulaine and O’Garran are coming out on the next shuttle, along with this Tsaami fellow who ferried you to and from your meeting with the Slaasriithi ambassador.”

    “A second shuttle, just for the three of them?”

    “No, they’re just tagging along with all the kit we’ve scratched together for you. I’m not sure you appreciate the challenges this has posed, Caine. This fleet came out here to fight a war, not explore new biospheres. This mission has half a dozen logistics staffs scrambling to find compact, pioneer-grade biosensors, microlabs, an automed, and more Dornaani translators.”

    “Hah,” said Vassily Sukhinin from the doorway, “those bean counters have it easy.”

    “Oh?” smiled Riordan. “And you’ve come along to say farewell, too?”

    “Da,” Sukhinin grinned back as he glided, quite professionally, to join the other three at the wide expanse of triple-layered glass. “Anything to get away from the staff officers who have been pestering me about finding personnel for your legation. The Fleet doesn’t have enough of the civilian-grade specialties and is also struggling with an incomplete database.”

    “Incomplete?” Hwang echoed.

    Sukhinin nodded. “Yes. It was just luck that Doppelganger is carrying most of the needed specialists. Along with gospodin Gaspard and his staff, she brought hundreds of civilian personnel, many with credentials that are rare among military ranks. But each of them must be added into the Fleet’s database. And only after trickling through Doppleganger’s Arat Kur communication systems. It is not a smooth operation.”

    Downing stared at the distant speck that was Doppelganger’s sister ship, Changeling. “And I won’t even be here to see the end of it.”

    “You are leaving already?” Hwang sounded as surprised as Caine felt. “I though you were staying until Visser formally hands the reins over to Vassily.”

    Downing shook his head. “The secure pouch that came on board Doppelganger carried new orders. Due to Wasserman’s discoveries, I have to catch up with the outbound Changeling and oversee his security, all the way back to Earth. Lemuel Wasserman is now the pearl of great price, so we can’t let anything happen to him. The wanker.”

    As Hwang pushed himself further down the expanse of window to get a better vantage point as they approached the Slaasriithi shift-carrier, Riordan’s took advantage of the comparative privacy. “So Richard, once you’ve left Sigma Draconis, who’s going to run the on-site intelligence operations?”

    It was Sukhinin who responded, elliptically. Or so it seemed, at first. “Originally, I was concerned that it would be intolerable to remain here, working alongside that arrogant upstart, Gaspard.” The Russian’s smiling eyes became sharp. “But now, he is traveling to have tea with aliens. And I have determined, after speaking with Richard, that there are additional interesting activities that want my attention while I am in this system.”

    Caine looked from Downing to Sukhinin and back again. He nodded thoughtfully at Richard. “So. Vassily is replacing you.”


    Caine waited a moment. “In every relevant regard.”


    Caine glanced at Sukhinin. “So you know.”

    Vassily smiled. “Yes, I know about your clandestine Institute for Research, Intelligence, and Security.”

    “For how long?”

    Vassily’s smile widened as he checked his watch. “About five hours, now, I estimate. But its existence was no surprise to me.”

    Caine nodded. “Did Nolan drop some broad hints?”

    Sukhinin straightened. “Nolan Corcoran and I were friends, but you must also remember that the Admiral was a consummate professional. I understand your supposition: that given our coordination before the Parthenon Dialogs, and our prior friendship, he might have…well, ‘encouraged’ me to speculate that there was an undisclosed international intelligence group assessing Earth’s vulnerability to exosapients. But he did not do so. And he did not need to. I had my own suspicions.”

    Downing, surprised, glanced at Sukhinin. “I didn’t know you guessed at the existence of IRIS before the Parthenon Dialogs. I doubt Nolan did either. He was very fond of you, and certainly would not have wanted you to feel excluded.”

    Sukhinin waved a dismissive hand. “Nolan did not exclude me; he spared me. I see very well how this IRIS has tied all of you in knots, has ruled your lives. Besides, at the Parthenon Dialogs, it was crucial that I had no knowledge of the secrets he kept. That way, no collusion between us—either as individuals or as representatives of our respective blocs—could be asserted.”

    Riordan’s nodded. “But you suspected that IRIS existed.”

    Sukhinin grinned. “Caine, parnishka, I knew it existed. I just did not know what it was called or precisely what it did. Years before, several of Moscow’s most gifted intelligence analysts had been reassigned to a secretive transnational cooperative which put them above my clearance level.” He wagged a finger. “Above my level. But I was satisfied that whatever this mysterious organization was, it posed no threat to the Federation or to Russia.”

    One of Downing’s eyebrows rose. “You don’t strike me as the trusting sort, Vassily.”

    “Well,” the Russian replied, scratching at his ear, “my superiors assured me that the unusual clearance elevations were proper and necessary. And you can imagine how much confidence that instilled in my cautious soul.” He had inserted his small finger halfway into his ear; he grinned meaningfully. But his expression became serious, even melancholy, when he removed it. “However, I deduced that Nolan was at the center of this star-chamber. And I had trusted him ever since he risked a court martial by helping my men during the Belt War. I knew who Nolan was, in here.” He thumped his chest faintly. “So I reasoned that, eventually, he and I would have a private chat, and my questions would be answered. However, I did not foresee that he would be assassinated, any more than I foresaw that I would become the answer to my own questions. As is the case now.”

    Downing’s collarcom toned softly. He cupped a hand over his earbud, responded with a resigned, “Very well,” tapped out.

    “Problems?” asked Hwang, who was drifting back into earshot.

    “What else? The Euro armored cargo shuttle that was scheduled to transport the second half of the cold-sleepers has had an engine failure. Not serious, but it can’t be fixed in time.”

    “And what was so special about this cargo shuttle?”

    Sukhinin smiled slowly. “I suspect that it was not the shuttle, but certain members of her crew, that were special.”

    Downing nodded. “Secure personnel, one of whom is an IRIS operative. Now we have to make do with a set of routine boat jockeys. The closest available is a TOCIO lighter.”

    Hwang shrugged. “Well, it’s not as though some enemy agent would just happen to be assigned to the TOCIO shuttle that just happens to be filling in for the EU craft that just happened to break at the wrong moment.” Hwang grinned. “Rather implausible, wouldn’t you say?”

    Downing’s answering smile was faint. “I suppose so.”

* * *

    Agnata Manolescu brushed a bang of fine, dark brown hair out of her eyes, visually confirmed what her dataslate told her: all eleven cryogenic suspension pods flagged for transfer to the Slaasriithi shift-carrier had been scanned, data-tagged, and were now awaiting pick up by the TOCIO lighter that was due in—

    —That is due right now! Agnata realized with a gulp. It was a rushed transfer, one which she’d been pulled out of her bunk to expedite. And, expected or not, she insisted that her work be invariably perfect, which is probably why the duty officer of the RFS Ladoga had interrupted her dreams of hiking in the Carpathian mountains to handle it.

    Well, that and her security clearance, which was evidently why the D.O. had sent her down here without even one deck-hand to help her. She glanced at two of the cryopods, the ones that could not have been released without her direct electronic countersign. Clearly, this was not just any shuffling of near-frozen personnel.

    The lights in the cargo bay’s control room strobed at the same moment that orange tabs began flashing on the main control panel: the TOCIO lighter had arrived in the approach envelope for docking at her bay. She toggled the secure circuit: “This RFSS Ladoga, bay control D-8, awaiting authorization code.”

    “This TOCIO lighter, B-114. I am in your envelope and transmitting code.”

    Agnata’s computer recognized the code. “Accepted. Stand by to commence hard dock.”

    “Standing by.”

    Agnata hit the auto-docking touchpad, split her attention between monitoring the actual process through the glass panel of her control booth and scanning the telemetry data on her overwatch monitor. The flashing red lights in the outer bay—the part of the loading platform that could open directly unto space—doubled in speed as the muted rush of evacuating air diminished. The relatively small bulkhead doors retracted, revealing a slowly widening rectangle of star-strewn space, the center of which was dominated by a roll-on/roll-off TOCIO lighter. A brief nimbus of thrust limned its stern and the craft drifted forward slowly, the pilot counting down the meters over the comm channel. When the pilot reached the one meter mark, she pulsed the forward attitude control rockets: terminal braking. The craft drifted to a halt a few centimeters away from the cargo bay’s outer coaming, from which four articulated clasps reached out and snugged the lighter against the docking sleeve. As the sleeve started inflating and the so-called “hard rim” clutched the nose of the lighter, the pilot signaled the end of the process: “My instruments show hard dock.”

    “Mine also,” Agnata replied. “I shall meet you at the inner bay door.”

    “We’ll be there within the minute.”

    The pilot had not lied: she and her sizeable, silent cargo-handler were waiting by the time Agnata arrived to check their clearances and cycle them into the actual lading spaces of the Ladoga. She indicated the three loaded standard robopallets and then the partially loaded secure robopallet, which was framed in red and yellow stipes. The pilot strolled past the lashed-down cryopods, aiming her data-slate at each until the inventory numbers matched and showed green. However, at the secure robopallet, the screen of her dataslate flashed red. “This is incorrect,” she muttered, removing her space helmet.

    Although protocols dictated that full vaccuum gear be worn and sealed at all times in both inner and outer bays, it was traditional courtesy to remove helmets and converse in real air if an exchange was going to be anything other than perfunctory. Agnata removed her own helmet. “What seems to be the problem?”

    “Inventory number mismatch. These two secure cryocells: they’re the wrong ones.”

    Agnata shook her head. “That is not possible. I checked the physical labels against the inventory code, and then against the order tear sheet that came in from Lord Admiral Halifax.”

    “Well, the chips in both of those cryocells are not recognizing their inventory code. Unless—could the physical labels have been switched?”

    Agnata started. “It is unlikely—but it is possible.” She moved forward, bending over to inspect the top surface of the first cryocell more closely. “Wait a moment. I shall check to see if the labels have been rebonded to the surface of the—”

    Lightning exploded between her temples, froze her, made the grinding of her own teeth fade—

* * *

    The pilot nodded to her assistant. After he removed the livestock stunner from the back of the Russlavic cargo-chief’s reddening neck, she tossed her head toward the mass of stacked containers. “Find the two cryocells we need.”

    The hulking cargo-handler nodded, started to move off with the secure robopallet. “Do I refile these, or—?”

    “Not where they belong. Put them in the holding cage for damaged cargo and pull their lading chips.”

    “But then the manifest updating system won’t read them, will show them missing.”

    “That’s the idea. Now hurry.”

    The pilot ran an implant scanner over the pale, unmoving cargo-chief, detected the Russlavic-standard transponder-biorelay in her left tricep. She zipped down that sleeve, then removed a small grey container and a circular scalpel from her own breast pocket. She swiftly scooped out the device located in Agnata’s arm, and dropped it into the container, which was half filled with a nutrient medium surrounding a pulsing EM emitter. It was a sophisticated underworld method for keeping a biomonitor from signaling complete failure—until the emitter’s battery ran out, at least.

    Agnata moaned softly, one hand rising toward the red hole that had been cut into her arm.

    The pilot’s assistant returned with two new cryocells on the secure robopallet. “I’ll load those,” she said, “you take care of her.”

    “Take care—?” He stopped, probably comprehending, but not wanting to.

    “Yes. We’re going to take her with us. But it would be needlessly cruel to dump her into vacuum while she’s still alive. Take care of her with that.” The pilot nodded at the livestock stunner, started guiding the robopallet toward the outer bay, their lighter, and their rendezvous at the Slaasriithi ship.

    “But I—I’ve never killed a woman.” The assistant’s massive shoulders were slumped.

    The pilot rolled her eyes. “You’ll get used to it. Now get going; we don’t have a lot of time.”



    When their armored shuttle came about for nose-first docking, Caine was not immediately certain he was looking at the Slaasriithi shift-carrier. Although it was clearly formed from metals and composites, it did not look mechanical. “It’s so smooth,” he wondered aloud. “It almost appears as though—”

    “—as though it was grown, not built or manufactured,” Ben Hwang finished, nodding.

    Sukhinin stared sidelong at the two of them. “Gentlemen, I do not pretend to have much grounding in the life sciences, but of this I may assure you: that vehicle is not some great space-plant.”

    Downing grinned. “No, but I suspect Slaasriithi metallurgy—probably material sciences in general—employ entirely different processes than ours. Hopefully,” he finished, glancing at Caine and Hwang, “that’s part of the information you’ll bring back home.”

    Caine nodded, looked for the complicated and diverse structures found at the bow of any human shift carrier but saw none of them. Instead, a large silver sphere capped the keel: almost certainly the command and control section. Starting just behind it was a stack of toruses which resembled a keel-enclosing column of immense, brushed-chrome donuts. They were set off at points by symmetrically arrayed metallic or composite bubbles, and even smaller bean-shaped objects.

    As they watched, one of the donuts split into two half-rings. Each half was pushed outward slowly from the keel by what appeared to be self-extruding composite-filament shafts. Once at full extension, the donut halves started rotating around the keel.

    Downing shook his head. “Well, that’s a different way to create a gravity-equivalent environment.”

    “Look at their cargo containers,” Hwang added, pointing back toward the waist of the craft. “Like something bees would build.”

    Instead of the heavily built cargo frames and docking cradles of human shift carriers, the Slaasriithi craft used various permutations upon honeycombs and hexagons. The keel was, itself, a cluster of hexagonal shafts: it was as if the Giant’s Causeway of Ireland had been reformed into a kilometer-long pole. Shorter hexagonal sections, probably cargo containers, were affixed along its length, reprising the keel’s own shape. The sections were subdivided into segments, each juncture joined and reinforced by a substance akin the composite which had extruded from the hull to deploy the half-donut rotational habitats. And aft, where a human ships’ drives, power plants and even fuel tanks tended to accrue in boxy agglomerations, the Slaasriithi ship was distinguished by symmetric clusters of spheres, all seamless and perfect.

    “It doesn’t look real,” Riordan murmured.

    “Yes,” Downing agreed. “It has a rather impressionist feel to it. Something Magritte might have imagined.”

    Hwang was smiling. “I wonder what our ships must look like to them?”

    “Great angular monstrosities,” Sukhinin pronounced, then pointed. “This should be interesting.”

    Caine and the others followed the vector implied by his index finger. The tug carrying Caine’s and Ben’s habmod was approaching the bow of the Slaasriithi ship, cruising slowly past the fat silver toruses.

    Halfway toward the large silver sphere at the bow, one of the smaller spheres began moving out from the keel. The tug angled sharply towards it, maneuvered so that the human habmod—a comparatively inelegant tin can—was poised next to the aft surface of the sphere. It held that position.

    Caine scanned the rest of the Slaasriithi ship: no other motion. No ROVs or other craft were on their way to help with the attachment of the module—which was looking damned near impossible.

    Until Ben Hwang chuckled. “Well, that’s an odd way to dock a module.” He pointed.

    Six small, equally spaced extrusions were emerging from the rear of the sphere, reaching to make contact with the habmod.

    Caine stared. “Is it growing the docking interface?”

    Hwang frowned. “I don’t think it’s growing, at least not the way we’d mean it. But it seems the Slaasriithi have materials that synergize mechanical and biological properties. Look: those extrusions resemble the racks holding their cargo tubes in place: six parallel ribs projecting backward from the vertices of a hexagon, with secondary extrusions stretching between them. When they’re done, they will have woven a basket around our habmod.”

    Sukhinin nodded, stood away from the gallery window. “We are nearing the point where we shall release your transfer module to a Slaasriithi tug, and I am thirty minutes overdue for my final conference with Consul Visser. Doctor, Caine: I wish you the best of luck and safe travels. Richard, you shall continue to brief me on local intelligence matters during our return trip?”

    “I’ll be right behind you, Vassily.” As Sukhinin exited, Downing turned to Riordan and Hwang. “Well, chaps, I can’t say I envy you.”

    Caine hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “You mean because we’re sailing off into the great unknown on the SS Magritte?”

    Richard smiled. “Well, that too. But truth be told, I was thinking of travelling with Gaspard. Beastly duty, that.”

    Hwang smiled. “I’m sure we shall manage.” He put out a hand. “Safe travels home, Richard.”

    As Downing shook Hwang’s hand, Caine found himself unable to keep thoughts of “home” under the tight control he had exerted since being roused from cold sleep only seventy-two hours earlier. Images of Elena Corcoran—and their son, Connor—displaced what his eyes were showing him. “I’d like to get home, too. Pick up where I left off with Elena. Start being a father to Connor.” Pushing aside the sudden homesickness, Caine stuck out his hand as well, did not care, at least momentarily, that Richard Downing hardly deserved a fond farewell from him.

    But when Caine mentioned the lover and son he had left behind, Richard glanced away quickly, feigned interest in the now fully-loaded—or would that be encysted?—habitation module. “They’ll be ready to launch your transfer module any minute now.” He let his eyes graze briefly across Riordan’s. “Safe travels, Caine.”

    If Downing had left the room any more quickly, his stroll would have qualified as a trot.

    “Odd,” observed Ben Hwang. “I wonder what troubled him?”

    Caine shrugged. “His conscience, probably.”

    “Yes, but why just now?”

    Caine said nothing, but silently agreed: yes, why just now?

    The almost mythological outlines of the Slaasriithi shift carrier loomed before them as they awaited the two-minute warning to board the transfer module that would convey them to the alien ship.

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