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Raising Caine: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Monday, August 3, 2015 19:49 EDT



In transit; GJ 1248’s inner system

    Two days later, once Riordan and the rest of the legation had gathered for their first collective meal in the overcrowded main room, Gaspard rose to formally announce where they were bound and why: a necessity, since many of the legation’s members had been loaded into their cryocells before leaving Earth. Expecting to be roused for either the counterattack on or policing of Sigma Draconis, they were startled to find those scenarios already outdated. Adapting to the new one took a little getting used to.

    After being handed some notes by his administrative assistant Dieter, Gaspard segued into introducing Morgan Lymbery, who had originally been sent along to seek out and investigate technologies that the Arat Kur might not have risked bringing to Earth. His naval designs had made him the war’s least known and most decisive innovator, and Gaspard apparently wanted the gathering to understand that they had a genuine, if unfamiliar, celebrity in their midst.

    Caine had taken a seat to the side of the impromptu head table, an unobtrusive spot from which to survey the entirety of the legation. Some predictable professional affinities were already emerging. Karam had made the acquaintance of the mission’s two other designated pilots: Qin Lijuan, a much-decorated Chinese sloop jockey who had been one of the few to survive the Second Battle of Jupiter, and a Russian veteran by the improbable name of Raskolnikov who was renowned for his ability to fly without instruments in the most adverse conditions. Another such pairing had occurred in the form of NCO bonding between ex-tunnel rat chief Miles O’Garran and towering Kiwi master sergeant Trent Howarth, who was as uniformly amiable as he was silent.

    Gaspard finished eulogizing the increasingly uncomfortable Morgan Lymbery and introduced another member of the senior staff, the multiply-accomplished Dr. Melissa Sleeman.

    As Gaspard began his overwrought panegyrics, Bannor found a chair next to Caine’s. SAAS Lieutenant Christopher “Tygg” Robin trailed after, eventually perching on a footrest, his knees almost as high as his chin. He looked like a naughty adult who’d been punished with a “time-out.”

    “Hello, Caine,” Tygg whispered. “Glad to catch up with you finally. So why isn’t Trevor on this mission? Is he back home minding –?”

    A sharp look may have shot from Bannor to Tygg. Who abruptly shut up.

    Caine frowned. “Is Trevor ‘at home minding’ what?”

    “Minding the store?” finished Tygg, almost smoothly. “I figured Mr. Downing might make him chief overseer of IRIS’ strike teams.”

    The explanation was reasonable, but it still had the sound of a hasty invention to replace whatever the Aussie had planned to ask before Bannor shot him the look. “You sure that’s the question you meant to ask, Tygg?”

    But Tygg’s eyes were no longer on Caine; they were focused over and past his shoulder. “Who’s that?” he muttered.

    Caine turned. Gaspard was concluding Sleeman’s introduction. “That’s Melissa Sleeman. The Wasserman replacement.”

    Bannor raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I didn’t read that in the dossier.”

    “It’s there between the lines.” Caine dug around for the last chunks of meat in his almost empty bowl of excellent lamb madras. “When the Earthside brain trust realized they had to call Wasserman back home, they started casting around for another all-purpose scientific genius. That’s who they came up with.”

    “Well, she sure is easier on the eyes,” Bannor commented quietly. “Probably more useful to a mission like this one, too.”

    Caine nodded. “She might not have Wasserman’s depth of insight, but she’s less narrowly focused: a genuine broad-spectrum expert.” He noticed that Tygg was still staring at Sleeman, whose features were a dramatic blend of her Indonesian, Dutch, Canadian, and Sierra Leonese heritage. “Lieutenant Robin, you seem very impressed by Dr. Sleeman’s, er, credentials.”

    Tygg nodded. He might or might not have heard what Caine had said.

    Bannor pointed across the room with a flick of his eyes. “Well, there’s a familiar face.”

    Caine did not recognize anyone. “Who? The big guy hunkered over his curry?”

    Bannor nodded. “Yeah. Keith Macmillan. One of the Commonwealth strikers who was providing security for Downing’s classified forward ops center in Perth at the end of the war. Saw him there after we rotated out of Jakarta.”

    Caine shrugged. “News to me. I have no idea about what happened after Shethkador shot me in the back with his bogus mechanical arm.”

    “Didn’t Downing catch you up on what followed?”

    Caine shook his head. “Nope. When they yanked me out of cold sleep in Sigma Draconis, I had one night to get myself briefed on why the Arat Kur weren’t talking to us and why we might have to slaughter them all with a plague. A day later, the Ktor showed up; no time for small talk.”

    “Ah. Right.” Bannor returned his attention to his curry. And he avoided Caine’s inquisitive gaze.

    Caine kept looking at him, and Bannor kept on not noticing. Now what the hell was that about? That’s more chatty that Bannor has been since, well, since I’ve known him. Why is he –?

    Gaspard gestured toward Riordan. “And there, to my distant right, is Caine Riordan, now Captain Riordan, who needs no introduction. He is my deputy on this mission and in charge of security. So, if you are not feeling secure, I commend you to his services.” The weak witticism received a few equally weak laughs, but Gaspard was obviously eager to move on. Caine simply smiled, waved, and went back to his meal. No reason to extend the formalities. He’d already been in touch with half of the new team members. He’d get to the other half tomorrow.

    Gaspard began to enumerate Ben Hwang’s many scientific achievements, which was probably unnecessary, since the highpoints of his career both before and after his Nobel prize were common knowledge.

    Tygg leaned over toward Caine. “Hsst. You’ve got an admirer.”

    Riordan, surprised, glanced up just in time to see Dora Veriden looking away from him, quite bored. “That’s Ms. Veriden, Gaspard’s private security.”

    “More like bodyguard,” grumbled Bannor.

    “And I’m certainly not getting a come-hither vibe from her, Tygg,” Riordan added quietly.

    The Aussie frowned, still looking at Veriden. “Took an eyeful of you just a second ago, though.”

    Yeah, if she’s memorizing my face, it’s probably because her boss has told her to bump me off if I become troublesome. “She’s been a pretty closed book, so far,” Riordan observed.

    “What’s her story, then?”

    Bannor put down his very empty bowl. “Trinidadian native. More or less. Has lived in almost a dozen countries, most of them former French colonies. Any degrees she has are from the school of hard knocks and the college of dirty tricks. There’s no record of her in any of our databases, and the dossier Gaspard forwarded for her has more blank spaces than details. My guess? She’s a DGSE street recruit. Probably a jack of all trades, sharp as a tack, and hard as nails. And if you want more tired colloquialisms, I charge by the word.”

    Caine almost choked on his last bite of food.

    Ben Hwang rose before Gaspard could attempt to summon a round of applause. “Allow me to overview what we know about the Slaasriithi. I assure you it will be brief, because we know very little. The most distinctive feature of the Slaasriithi is that they are polytaxic.”

    Joe Buckley, a Chicagoan who was the legation’s combination purser, quartermaster, and logistician, squinted at the unfamiliar word. “Poly-what?”

    Hwang smiled. “The Slaasriithi are a single species, but are divided into specialized subspecies distinguished by significant physiological differences. However, according to the one source we have on them, all these subspecies have consistently evolved to be cooperative parts of their larger, stable social matrix and remain universally interfertile.”

    “This one source you referred to: is that the child’s-primer we’ve read about?” The question came from a heavy-set young Ukrainian who was the legation’s physicist and primary assistant to Sleeman.



    As Ben Hwang confirmed that this simple text was, in fact, the only specific information the Slaasriithi had provided, Caine leaned toward Rulaine. “That physicist is a relative of one of the other members of the team that went to the Convocation, Natalia Durniak. His name’s Oleg Danysh. A second cousin.”

    “You think he pulled family strings to get shipped out to Sigma Draconis?”

    “I think that anything is possible.”

    Hwang had resumed his overview of the Slaasriithi. “Their eyes are not arranged for binocular vision like ours. Instead, they have dispersed eyes and light sensors which evidently give them a field of vision that is almost two hundred seventy degrees in all direction from their front facing.”

    “What kind of neural bandwidth does that require, I wonder?” Nasr Eid, the Egyptian computer and cryptology specialist, had clearly meant it as a rhetorical inquiry, but Hwang elected to address it.

    “An excellent question, but we lack direct biological data to answer it. However, we do have some fruit and vegetable samples they sent to a reception our delegation hosted at the Convocation. Although their xenogenetic structures do not mimic our double-stranded DNA helix in the least, they are biochemically compatible, or at least benign. Additionally, we found indications that one of the vegetables can express a latent chimaerism that manifests as inverted chirality.”

    Esiankiki Salunke, the legation’s arrestingly tall Indian-Kenyan linguist, blinked. “So it can mutate?”

    Hwang’s assistant, Hirano Mizuki, and the mission’s ranking expert in planetology and biome studies, explained that chimaerism was distinct from mutation. Specifically, the vegetable’s exogenome was capable of evolving a variant in which the chirality of the plant’s amino acids — their right- or left-handedness — would be reversed.

    “Would that threaten us?” asked Xue Heng, the team’s EMT, assistant quartermaster, and a long-service army veteran.

    Ben shrugged. “Unknown, but the Slaasriithi biosphere clearly contains organisms which follow a very different genetic and chemical map than our own. That’s consistent with what we’ve discovered about much of the biota on Delta Pavonis Three. Which brings us to a point that few of you have been briefed on.

    “As I’m sure you all know, it was Captain Riordan who reported that there was a species of primitive exosapients on Delta Pavonis Three at last year’s Parthenon Dialogs. What we did not know until recently was that those primitive beings and the Slaasriithi have common origins. As their ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash put it, the Pavonians are related to the Slaasriithi the way Neanderthal is related to Cro Magnon.”

    “Just when was that learned?” asked Rena Mizrahi, the surgeon and neurology specialist from Tel Aviv.

    Caine smiled ruefully. “The same day we got the invitation.”

    Phillip Friel, an engineer who’d imbibed engineering theory at Trinity in Dublin before an extended tour with the EU navy, looked up from under dark bangs. “This all happened rather suddenly, it seems.” The group’s other engineer, Tina Melah, was sitting alongside him and nodding vigorously.

    “It did come together suddenly,” Caine agreed. “Particularly once the Ktor showed up to retrieve their ambassador. That made the Slaasriithi extremely uneasy. So they accelerated the process of inviting us for a visit.” And here’s the part where we have to stay very, very vague; if they start asking about the Ktor role in this, one slip could pop the intel lid off the fact that the Ktor are humans, too, rather than the methane-dwelling ice worms they implied they were…

    But instead, the legation’s official recorder and archivist, Qwara Betul, grumbled. “I must say I am not happy about such a hastily organized mission.”

    “None of us were, but it was either go now or not within the foreseeable future,” Caine said sympathetically — just before the external airlock page double-chimed.

    Riordan stood. “I think we have company.”



    After remaining in the airlock for three minutes so that those humans unaccustomed to his appearance could absorb it, Ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash entered the module. “Greetings, honored guests. I thank you for allowing me to intrude.”

    Gaspard glanced at Caine as if to say: so liase, liaison. Caine obliged: “Your arrival is a gift, not an intrusion, Yiithrii’ah’aash. And I have the pleasure of presenting the entirety of our legation to you, but most especially, our ambassador, Etienne Gaspard, Consul of the Consolidated Terran Republic.” The last phrase caused a few starts among the lately awakened team members, who had entered their cryocells when Earth’s fledgling polity was still called the World Confederation. Gaspard approached his Slaasriithi counterpart. Who extended his many-tendrilled “hand” adding, “If the form of my appendage troubles you, we may forego this ritual. I offer it in recognition of your traditions.”

    Gaspard took the alien hand. If he felt any repugnance, he did not show it, although he withdrew his hand promptly. “Ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash, what is your customary manner of greeting? I would assay it.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash burbled spasmodically: laughter? “You could not do so. You lack the correct pheromones. However, we are eager to share our ways with you. Accordingly, I have come to invite you to visit this system’s world tomorrow.”

    Those who were enthusiastic about this news, including Caine’s five cabin-fevered fellow travelers, made sounds of approval. Those who were not so ready to debark upon an alien world were markedly silent.

    Riordan made note of the most reluctant faces, asked, “How large a party should we prepare?”

    The Slaasriithi’s finger-furlings and -unfurlings paused. “All may visit.”

    “That is most generous, Ambassador, but our security policy prohibits full attendance. Some must remain behind with the habmodule.” Not that you’d go rummaging through our drawers, but protocols are protocols.

    Yiithrii’ah’aash frozen digits came to life in a sudden roiling motion. “Understood. However, those who do not make this first journey may not leave this module for subsequent journeys.”

    “They will be restricted to this ship?”

    “They will be restricted to this habitation module. To be safe in our places, you must visit them. So we cannot guarantee the safety of those who do not visit. This is the requirement for access to our worlds. We regret if it is inconvenient and we accept that some of your legation may not be able to comply.”

    Yeah, but, we didn’t come out here to leave any of our experts corked up like genies in a lamp. Caine glanced at Gaspard —

    — who nodded his approval.

    Riordan flashed him a grateful smile — he does have his moments — and nodded at Yiithrii’ah’aash. “I am happy to say that all will go.”

    “And we are happy to hear it. In preparation for your journey, we will allow free access to your two ships, as well as protected access to your cargo module, so that you may get any equipment that you consider prudent. We have automated transportation waiting to carry the entirety of your legation there and back. However, be warned: it would not be safe to return there unescorted, so be sure to collect all the supplies you require before we depart.”

    Hwang bowed slightly, waited until Yiithrii’ah’aash had turned his “face” toward him. “Ambassador, every time you mention entering your ship, you speak of these dangers. Do you have guards that would harm unauthorized visitors?”

    The exosapient’s ostrich neck pulsed through a quick set of peristaltic ripples. “Not such as you mean. It is simply that our ship would not recognize you.”

    “And so its systems would attack us?” Tygg asked.

    “No, but they would not know to avoid you. Which could be just as bad. They would not desist from functions that might be injurious to bystanders. Before we reach our next stop, you will have been added to their recognition template. In your parlance, it is a biochemical database in which your genotype can be coded as being a friend.”

    “Or a foe?” Caine inquired.

    Yiithrii’ah’aash turned back toward him. “Yes. That, too. Now, let us go.”

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