Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Raising Caine: Chapter Fifteen

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



Near gas giants; all systems from V 1581 to GJ 1248

    The bridge of the Arbitrage was packed tight with the Lurkers’ crew. Only the two low-breed aspirants to Elevation, Jesel and Suzruzh, were absent, ensuring that the Aboriginals remained locked in their quarters. Nezdeh rose into the microgravity. “We have finalized our plans.” She nodded toward Idrem.

    He activated his beltcom’s projector: eight wire-thin arms emerged from the top of the unit. A moment later, a crude, semi-flat holograph was floating a meter above it. The image was a stylized Aboriginal graphic depicting the refueling operations of the Arbitrage. “Attend. This ship was to conduct two to three more days of fuel harvesting here at V1581.4. It was then scheduled to break orbit and head for its prearranged shift point to Sigma Draconis, here.” Idrem gestured toward a pulsing cross-hairs symbol, far beyond the heliopause. “It would have taken them five weeks to reach this point at an approximate velocity of zero point two cee: a total of thirty-eight days from now. Keeping to that schedule would prevent the Aboriginals in this system from suspecting that the Arbitrage has been seized.

    “However, we may no longer do so.” Idrem brought up a schematic of the shift-carrier. “In addition to minor damage that our attacks inflicted upon this hull’s fuel handling capacity, we also destroyed one of the tanker/tenders when the Aboriginals attempted to ram us with it.”

    Tegrese frowned. “So the Aboriginals back at the second planet will detect and inspect this refueling delay.”

    “They would notice it eventually, but we will be sure to report it before then.”

    Zurur Deosketer sounded skeptical. “Will the Aboriginals trust a report that does not come from the captain of record?”

    Brenlor smiled. “No, but fortunately, the Aboriginal captain will make the report.”

    “The Aboriginal captain is dead.”

    “His voice is not.”

    Idrem expanded upon Brenlor’s response. “The Aboriginals record all communiqués. So, once we have recalibrated the comm array on the Red Lurker to emulate the Arbitrage’s, we shall send a damage report and revised mission timeline using edited clips of the voice of the dead captain. The Aboriginal force back at Planet Two will have questions. But given the transmission delay of almost twenty minutes, it will not seem unusual that some other member of the command staff would answer. Accordingly, Kozakowski will reply as we instruct.”

    “Consequently, the Arbitrage shall resume her current timetable with a four or five day delay. But she shall never arrive at Sigma Draconis.” Idrem waved his hand over his beltcom: a glittering three-dimensional array of the stars within fifteen light years floated before them. He pointed toward one incarnadine chip: it pulsed as his finger neared it. “Our present location.” He moved his finger until it rested on an orange-yellow dot, which also bloomed. “Sigma Draconis; just under 8.3 light years. But our actual destination is here” — he pointed at a more distant, dual-lobed red spot — “GJ 1230. It has other names as well, all equally uninspiring.”

    Tegrese squinted, frowned. “It is almost twelve light years from this system. How shall we reach it? This wretched hull can barely shift two-thirds of that distance.”

    “That is true, presuming it is unaided.” Brenlor smiled. “I told you at the outset that six other Aspirants, soon to be Evolved, would join us. What I neglected to mention is what they would be bringing with them.” He swept his hand over Idrem’s beltcom.

    A new image appeared next to the three-dimensional star map: a blocklike spacecraft, as uninspiring to the eye as the Aboriginal star names were to the ear. But the Ktor reacted as if it was an object of surpassing beauty, just as Nezdeh had known they would.

    “A shift-tug!” Ulpreln almost laughed. “An old one — almost two centuries, from the look of the thermionic radiator grid — but still, that should give us ample shift range.”

    “Almost twelve and a half light years,” Brenlor confirmed. “She and the six huscarls manning her are in this system already. She will rendezvous with us in four weeks.”

    Vranut folded his arms. “And how is it that a Ktor tug happens to be in such a convenient location, Brenlor?”

    Brenlor seemed to approve of Vranut’s cynicism. “An excellent question. And here is the excellent answer: it was part of our Earth-related operations more than a century ago.”

    Vranut’s eyebrows elevated slightly. “It helped position the Doomsday Rock?”

    “No, it was not part of our own House’s covert forces. The Autarchs ordered the tug to support the Dornaani Custodians in their monitoring of the Aboriginals. It was listed as lost due to shift-drive failure.”

    Nezdeh waved a hand at the fuel skimmers in their berths. “Our one irremediable operational weakness is the Arbitrage’s damaged, and primitive, refueling technologies. We will expend considerable time taking on hydrogen between shifts.”

    “Yes,” Vranut countered carefully, “but we will also require less time to preaccelerate, once we have rendezvoused with our tug and its anti-matter drives.”

    Nezdeh nodded. “Our per-system turn around time will shrink to approximately ten days. Technical intelligence estimates that the Slaasriithi turn around is twelve days. With that two day advantage, we should be able to overtake our target and so, begin to both restore and avenge our Extirpated House.”

    Tegrese pointed back at the red speck that was GJ 1230. “We shall restore our House by traveling there? An uninhabited system? And in pursuit of what target?”

    Nezdeh chose to ignore Tegrese’s borderline insolence. “The target is a Slaasriithi shift-carrier carrying human envoys to Beta Aquilae. Destroying that ship will simultaneously derail any rapid alliance between those two polities while also creating an incident which shall provoke open war.”

    Vranut’s eyes had remained on Nezdeh. “I have a question that I hope you will not consider impertinent.”

    I hope so, too. “Proceed,” she said.

    “So: I understand that destroying this Slaasriithi ship will damage or at least delay an alliance between two of our adversaries. But how does that facilitate the resurgence of House Perekmeres?”

    Nezdeh nodded. “Your question is perceptive, not impertinent. Bluntly, we have patrons back in the House Moot who have assured us that such an event would be a political disaster for House Shethkador, which has been entrusted with managing affairs in this salient. A significant decrease in the fortunes of House Shethkador will create an opening for the restoration of House Perekmeres.

    “You may have been too young at the time of our Extirpation to know just how tirelessly House Shethkador schemed to effect our downfall. They are now the dominant voice in the House Moot. But their preeminence is built upon their supposed skill at destroying enemies from within rather than upon battlefields, and for reclaiming clandestine operations which threatened to spin out of control or become politically injurious.” Such as the folly of our own Hegemons’ Doomsday Rock scheme, unfortunately. “House Shethkador’s support in the House Moot would diminish if it stumbled in its current efforts to control the war’s political backlash. Logically, it is in their interest to calm the post-war waters by lulling the other species of the Accord back into apathy and indecision. So, conversely, it is in our interest to stir those waters as violently as possible.

    “Moreover, if a small band such as ourselves can successfully ruin House Shethkador’s tortuously subtle plans by striking directly against our collective foes, it not only proves the tenuousness of Shethkador’s control over this salient of operations, but will solidify support for us and our boldness. The Houses that now aid us covertly will become our overt champions. Houses that are currently undecided will decide in our favor. It will not mean the downfall of House Shethkador, but it would at least cost them their preeminence and a few sacrificial scapegoats. Conversely, the value of our Perekmeres genelines will soar, and we may be allowed to fully reconstitute our House. If not, then at least as a First Family within another House. And from there — well, we Perekmeres have never had a paucity of ambition.”

    The group’s feral smiles dimmed as Idrem introduced a sobering note. “Our patrons, some of whose identities we cannot confirm, assert that it would be advantageous if the elimination of the Slaasriithi ship and the Aboriginal envoys could be carried out in such a way that the cause of their destruction was a mystery, or, better yet, appear to have been caused by each other.”

    “The latter scenario is preposterous,” Vranut objected. “There is no reason for the two species to betray each other, and every reason for them to become allies. Quickly.”



    Idrem nodded. “This is true. But it is in the nature of inferior species to become distracted and indecisive when confronted by unanticipated and unexplained events. While they investigate and remain at arm’s length from each other, months and years shall pass. That alone will disrupt House Shethkador’s plans and reveal both their incompetence and ill-advised preference for guile over direct action.”

    Brenlor expanded the starfield display. “And so, our target is GJ 1230. You will observe that almost all the routes from Sigma Draconis to the Slaasriithi homeworld pass through it.”

    Vranut’s frown had not diminished. “You seem to have known ahead of time that the Slaasriithi would invite a human envoy to their homeworld. How? Informers?”

    Nezdeh smiled. “No: logic. Once the Aboriginals defeated the Arat Kur, the Slaasriithi would have been fools not to ally with them. This conjecture led us to be watchful for signs that the Slaasriithi were making just such overtures. Those signs were detected and confirmed just before Ferocious Monolith shifted to Sigma Draconis.”

    Ulpreln frowned. “How could Ferocious Monolith have learned what had transpired in the Sigma Draconis system before she shifted there? Was there an Awakened on board?”

    “No Reification was required to vouchsafe us this information,” Brenlor explained. “Half a day before Monolith shifted out, an Aboriginal craft shifted in near Planet Two. It was an Arat Kur prize they seized during the fleet actions in Sigma Draconis. Our servitors on board the TOCIO shift-carrier already orbiting Planet Two — the Gyananakashu — learned of the Slaasriithi invitation from that prize ship. They relayed the news to us using a trickle code protocol: single, seemingly random signals sent over the course of several hours.” He pointed to GJ 1230. “So, knowing that these envoys are making for Beta Aquilae, we can be relatively certain that we shall intercept them in that system, or one slightly further along their path.”

    Idrem deactivated his beltcom. “But we must do so swiftly. Our projection of their path could be in error. Accordingly, we must be ready to leapfrog ahead if we miss their ship in GJ 1230. Now, return to your stations.”

    Brenlor’s tone and expression changed as soon as he was alone with Idrem and Nezdeh; he glanced at her sharply. “You should tell them you are capable of Reification. It would increase their confidence in our mission and would boost morale.”

    Nezdeh shook her head. “It might also undercut their sense of urgency, of the magnitude of the challenges before us. Besides, I am only recently Awakened and have but two Catalysites remaining. No, it is best that the crew assumes we have no special assets and that we are totally alone. Because, quite frankly, we are. Should we succeed, we shall become the symbol and proof of our patrons’ arguments against the lethargy of the Older Houses. On the other hand, if we do not succeed, we shall be glad that I was never in Reified contact with our patrons and that, therefore, they do not know where to find us.”

    Brenlor stared through the bridge windows at the small ruby that was V 1581. “Caution and prudence; prudence and caution. It sorely tasks a warrior to think like a fugitive.”

    “It does,” Nezdeh soothed. “It surely does.”

    Brenlor stared at her. “I return to my quarters. You have the con, Nezdeh.” He stalked out the hatchway.

    Nezdeh glanced at Idrem, thought, between the two of us, we shall be able to manage Brenlor. But she only said, “We work well together, Idrem.”

    Idrem stared at her. “It seems so, Nezdeh.”



    Standing at the same viewports after completing their shift six weeks later, Idrem observed that GJ 1230 was an even smaller ruby than V1581 had been.

    However, that was merely what the eye could show. GJ1230 was a flare star, and the variations in its luminosity were minimal compared to its sudden tsunamis of radiation. The crew sections of the Aboriginal ship were lined by meter-thick water tankage, sandwiched between a comparatively soft outer hull and an armored inner hull: proof against this star’s maximum REM spikes.

    Even so, the Arbitrage remained in the shadow of one of the system’s gas giants, but not due to the hazards of radiation. Rather, it was endeavoring to avoid the dangers of detection.

    Because the Slaasriithi ship had arrived at GJ 1230 ahead of them. It was already preaccelerating toward its next shift, a dimming particle trail indicating it had refueled at the same gas giant around which the Ktor were now entering a stealthy, unpowered orbit.

    Brenlor glanced at Idrem. “Intercept is impossible, then?”

    Idrem nodded. “If we pursued them at maximum acceleration, we would still be many light minutes out of range when they shift again.”

    Brenlor’s next question did not rise above a faint grumble. “And how soon until we can commence our refueling operations?”

    “Their sensor activity is intermittent and, at this range, weak. We would be relatively safe today, completely safe tomorrow.”

    “Then we send out the skimmers tomorrow.” Brenlor turned to examine the nav plot. “We will continue to presume their next shift shall be to AC+20 1463-148, and we shall follow their lead.”

    Idrem nodded. “The charts for AC+20 1463-148 indicates that if we arrive in the lee of an outer gas giant, we may remain unseen, even during most of our refueling. We may then shift out ahead of them; the gas giant and the photosphere of the primary will be positioned so as to distort and obscure the signature of our preacceleration.”

    “Excellent,” Brenlor decided. “That is our plan, then.”



    But it did not work out that way. Early on their fifth day in the AC+20 1463-148 system, Idrem heard Nezdeh enter the bridge behind him. “You are up early,” she said. Her tone had become more familiar.

    “I want to be present the moment these accursed Slaasriithi disappear from our sensors,” Idrem responded, not turning toward her. “We must commence anti-matter production as soon as possible.”

    Nezdeh came to stand beside him. “It has been frustrating, being delayed this way.”

    Idrem managed not to scoff. Brenlor had been on the bridge when they shifted into the system. He had taken one look at the readouts and stalked off to his quarters: a blip denoting the Slaasriithi ship had loomed unexpectedly large in their sensors. Evidently, its refueling in the previous system had taken much longer than predicted. Consequently, the ship arrived at AC+20 1463-148 later and would be in a position to spot them for much longer. And that meant more delay before the Ktor could jump ahead to GJ 1236.

    Brenlor had returned to the bridge, asking about the possibility of changing plans and intercepting the enemy craft in this system. Idrem was at pains to point out that the Arbitrage’s tanks were dry and her anti-matter reserves low. And since the replenishment of those reserves required full output from all the available fusion plants, the skimmers would have to harvest even more hydrogen than usual. Brenlor had stalked back off the bridge. The ensuing five days had not been pleasant.

    Nezdeh pointed at the sensors. “A power spike from the Slaasriithi.”

    Idrem nodded. “Without question, they are preparing — ”

    The radiant energy level peaked asymptotically and then dropped to zero. The green blip disappeared.

    Idrem immediately brought the fusion plants on both the Arbitrage and the tug up to full power, leaned over to summon the necessary technicians — fuel processors, flight personnel, bridge staff — to their stations. He stopped when he felt something gentle touch his arm.

    Nezdeh’s hand. He looked up from it into her eyes.

    “You are a great asset to this House, Idrem Perekmeres.”

    “My apologies, but you forget, Nezdeh: I am twice removed from the main geneline. Technically, I am Perekmeresuum.”

    “I do not need your correction, Idrem,” she said firmly, but not sternly. “Besides, that distinction is now nonsense. There are so few of our lines left, we must salvage everything we can.” She looked out into space. “In which task you are tireless. Now: get some sleep.”

    “I shall. As soon as the second bridge crew reports, I will be returning to my quarters.”

    “Your quarters on Lurker, or here on the Arbitrage?”

    Idrem was rarely confused, but this question disoriented him. “Eh…here. Does it matter?”

    Her gaze was unblinking. “It does. I shall see you. Very soon.”

    She turned and left the bridge, with Idrem speechless at the middle of it.




    Brenlor tapped one finger against his bicep as, ten days later, the Arbitrage approached the shift point to their next destination: system GJ 1236. “All systems nominal?”

    “Yes, Evolved,” answered Ayana Tagawa, whom they had trained as the second pilot for the Arbitrage. She had good basic skills and very high inherent aptitudes. “Terminal preacceleration energy state has been attained.”

    Nezdeh noted the lack of affect in her voice. Brenlor thought she had become the most compliant of all the Aboriginals. Nezdeh wondered if her constrained demeanor and minimal expressions and speech might not indicate the exact opposite.

    Brenlor nodded to Ulpreln. “Deactivate the space-normal helm. Tagawa, you are dismissed. Go with the guard.” One of the two dozen Optigene paramilitary clones that they had wakened from cold sleep took a step toward her, waited. She nodded to the Evolved on the bridge and exited with the slow dignity that was her wont.

    “Ulpreln, is the shift-drive charged?”

    “Completing charge…now.”


    The universe seemed to flutter unpleasantly, as though consciousness threatened to blink off, and every muscle in Nezdeh’s body was preparing to spasm…And then it was over.

    “Sensors, confirm destination,” Brenlor ordered.

    The Aboriginal crewman glanced at his instruments. “Stellar type: M3 dwarf, main sequence. Emission bands match target star precisely. Stellar field parallax assessment confirms we are in system GJ 1236.”


    “262 light seconds from the primary, absolute bearing of 167 by 14.”

    “Position of nearest planet and target planet?”

    “Nearest planet: small gas giant, absolute bearing 187 by 3, 293 light seconds from the primary…”

    So a bit behind us on the port quarter —

    “…Target planet: absolute bearing 84 by 2, 99 light seconds from the primary.”

    Brenlor turned to Ulpreln. “Plot course for the gas giant. Second sensor operator: contact report.”

    “No proximal contacts. Several structures in orbit around the target planet. Two, possibly three, sensors in orbit around the gas giant. Very small. Unpowered.”

    “Time to refuel?”

    “Five days, presuming typical meteorological patterns.”

    Brenlor turned from the forward view ports, drew closer to Nezdeh. “You have confidence in Idrem’s estimate?”

    “That we may be able to refuel before the Slaasriithi arrive? Yes. Their shorter range compelled them to shift to another system — GJ 1232 — before they were able to continue on to this one. But remember Idrem’s caveat: GJ 1232 is reserved for Slaasriithi use. It is unlikely but possible that they have a fuel depot here.”

    “And so, they could be here in half the time we expect,” Brenlor concluded sourly. He moved to the hatchway and ducked under the coaming as if dodging the possibility that, once again, his quarry might unwittingly frustrate his plans.



    Except the Slaasriithi arrived in much less time, Nezdeh thought forty hours later, recalling and amending her prior cautionary caveat.

    Idrem was on hand, having heard the news of the Slaasriithi’s appearance near the other gas giant halfway across the system. And, she realized with a start, her gaze kept returning to Idrem’s broad back.

    She wrenched her eyes away. Tender sentiments were vulnerabilities, even among those who had become intimate. Many of the Progenitors had authored axioms warning against them, and she had always heeded them. But now —

    When Brenlor entered the bridge, the Aboriginals and Evolveds all straightened in unison. He looked directly at Idrem. “Do we have a reasonable chance of making a stealthy approach to the target?”

    Idrem shook his head. “Even if we court the shadows of the other planets and the primary, and coast on battery power when we are not concealed, we will not reach them unobserved before they commence preacceleration.”

    Brenlor stalked to the front view ports. He was silent for several moments, looking toward the primary. “Apparently they had access to a fuel depot at GJ 1232.”

    Nezdeh was surprised by how calm he sounded. “Almost certainly.”

    Brenlor nodded. “Can we continue our own refueling?”

    “Slowly,” answered Idrem, “and only when this gas giant is between us and them.”

    “So, when we have finished refueling, they will still require four to five days of further preacceleration, correct?”


    “And from that same moment, we too require approximately four and a half days of preacceleration also, yes?”

    Idrem nodded. “Yes. So we could be shifting within hours of each other.”

    Brenlor actually smiled. “Very suspenseful.” His smile widened. “I like that.”



    Nezdeh glanced at the mission clock located between the two forward view ports: the Arbitrage was in the last thirty seconds of the countdown to her own transit to the system Aboriginals labeled GJ 1248.

    As the bridge crew finished calling out the readiness marks, Brenlor leaned forward eagerly: “Engage!” Nezdeh’s stomach sunk as the world shimmered at the edge of annihilation and then, just as speedily, reasserted — but with a new starfield peering in at them through the view ports. “Sensors, report: proximal contacts?”

    A tense second before the Aboriginal reported. “No proximal contacts.”

    “Expand passive scan footprint. Report all contacts. Ulpreln, shift accuracy?”

    “Within eighteen light seconds of the target gas giant, Brenlor. We are behind it, but are situated to rise into clear line-of-sight for observation of the main planet in orbit one.”

    Perfect, Nezdeh thought. Now if only —

    The oddly strident Aboriginal klaxons began hooting over the senior sensor operator’s report: “Asymptotic energy spike sixteen light seconds out from the main planet.” At the same moment, the green blip denoting the Slaasriithi shift carrier appeared in the navplot.

    Nezdeh frowned. They shifted in next to the main planet? Logically, that must mean —

    “They have a base at that world, or some other fueling facility,” Brenlor announced quietly. “Sensors, any orbital facilities?”

    “Unable to confirm at this range.”

    Brenlor thought for a moment. “Sensors, narrow sweep of target planet: inferential spectroscopic analysis of atmosphere. Also, maximum enhanced image.”

    The sensor operator’s compliance was swift. “Spectroscopic analysis returns high confidence of oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. Image confirms that the planet is gravitationally locked in a one-to-one resonance with the primary, and that it has a habitable band following the approximate terminator line.”

    Brenlor leaned back, resigned. “This is precisely the kind of planet that the Slaasriithi would develop. And so, would probably construct a fuel depot.” He shook his head. “We will not be able to surprise them.”

    Ulpreln looked sideways at his commander. “But if we do not intercept them here –”

    Brenlor nodded. “Yes, I know: they can reach Beta Aquilae in one shift. And so our chase is over and we have failed.”

    Nezdeh glanced back over the screens which displayed the Slaasriithi’s prior path. “They might not shift directly to Beta Aquilae, though.” Seeing Brenlor’s surprised stare, she added, “I have no concrete evidence for my speculation; it is pure conjecture.”

    Brenlor folded his arms. “Your speculative insights have often been correct, Nezdeh. For the good of our House, employ that skill now.”

    “Very well. We know the Slaasriithi are, of all the species of the Accord, the ones most deeply involved in biological development. And we know that they have made all haste to arrive at this place. Yet, look at their progress toward the main planet” — she gestured at the navplot — “an unusually slow pace, almost casual.”

    Ulpreln frowned. “And what do you infer from that?”

    “That they are in no hurry to get to the fuel there because they are in no hurry to move onward. Not this time. I suspect they mean to visit the surface of this world, possibly to acclimatize the humans to their biota.”

    Brenlor nodded. “By pausing here, do you think they will become vulnerable to attack?”

    Nezdeh shook her head. “Probably not. But they are giving us the opportunity to refuel and shift much sooner than they do.”

    “Are you suggesting that we precede them into their home system and ambush them there?”

    “No. That would be utter and immediate suicide. But there is also the possibility that this world is only the first stage in their acclimatization of the Aboriginals. If it is, they might shift here, first.” She extended her finger toward the navplot, put her finger on the orange speck that denoted BD +02 4076. “Their own self-reference indicates that they have been transforming this world for at least eight hundred years. Logically, it might be an intermediary acclimatizing step between this newly shaped world” — she nodded outward toward the unseen planet in this system — “and Beta Aquilae itself. Consequently, if we cannot intercept them here, we might have an opportunity to ambush them in BD +02 4076.”

    Brenlor squinted up into the glittering star map. “And if they do not detour there at all, but go on directly to Beta Aquilae?”

    “Then we have lost nothing that is not already lost at this moment.”

    Brenlor nodded. “Then we shall refuel and watch. And wait.”

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image