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Raising Caine: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Friday, August 7, 2015 19:11 EDT



In transit; GJ 1248’s inner system

    Exiting the habitation module at the head of the humans, Yiithrii’ah’aash gestured toward four waiting conveyances. Unlike the small, sealed eggs that had shuttled Caine and his fellow conscious travelers to and from their one trip to the cargo module, these were fitted with clear canopies that emerged seamlessly from the ellipsoidal chassis of the vehicles.

    However, “vehicles” didn’t seem an apt word for these objects. They had no protrusions or lines that betrayed the presence of maintenance panels or weld points. The only component reminiscent of human machinery was a panel behind which an operator might sit. But it was impossible to be certain of its exact function: it curved black-glass surface was inert.

    It also fronted the eighth seat in the lozenge-shaped craft, into which Melissa Sleeman gleefully slid as she began inspecting the shining ebon arc. Behind her, Morgan Lymbery peered closely at the seamless juncture of the glass canopy and the vehicle’s body. His concentration was as monofocal and unblinking as that often associated with the autistic.

    Tygg managed to get into the same pod-car, trailing just behind Peter Wu and Rena Mizrahi. The tall Aussie stole a furtive glance at Melissa as he slung himself into a seat alongside Bannor. Unaware of his attention, she continued inspecting her novel surroundings — until the vehicles rose in unison. Gimballing their rotor-cans, they started toward the cargomod at a reasonable rate.

    “Shouldn’t we be starting to feel a loss of gravity equivalent?” wondered Tygg.

    “It will take a little longer, and only if we’re moving inward toward the keel,” Caine answered.

    “And we’re not,” put in Melissa, “We’re moving at about a twenty-five-degree angle to it right now.”

    “How do you know?” Tygg’s voice was wonderstruck and completely incongruent emerging from one of the most blooded veterans of the recent war.

    “Oh, well, I just counted the bends we’ve followed.”

    Riordan, who prided himself on being observant, wondered: bends? What bends?

    The pod-bus slowed, veered into a side tunnel, sped forward a short distance and then slowed as it emerged into an open area. The high-domed space reminded Caine of a small, trackless turning yard: wide oval bulkhead doors were inset upon each of the other five sides of the hexagonal chamber. The pod-busses all landed in a row before the door opposite the tunnel mouth.

    After Melissa had exited in an exuberant rush, Bannor asked, “Did anyone else see any of those bends she mentioned?”

    “Not me,” Caine confessed.

    “I didn’t see anything,” Tygg breathed, his gaze following Melissa.

    “That’s because you had something in your eye,” commented Rena over her shoulder as she exited.

    “Something in my eye?” Tygg repeated, baffled.

    “Yes, as in Dr. Sleeman.” Wu managed not to smile.

    “It’s that obvious?” Tygg asked.

    Bannor rolled his eyes. Caine laughed, then the mirth suddenly inverted into sharp longing for Elena. He exited the pod-bus quickly.



    Caine and the others who had been conscious for the trip helped the rest of the legation unload their scant belongings from the personal luggage antechamber of the cargo module. Finished, they gathered before the large doors into the main lading section, waiting for their hosts.

    “Unloading should be easy,” commented Esiankiki Salunke, who moved gracefully in the slightly reduced gravity. “Everything weighs less.”

    “Yeah,” commented Joe Buckley, “just remember that mass is unchanged. People who forget that often get squished.”

    Esiankiki raised an eyebrow. “My, you are a most cheery person.”

    “Comes from seeing newb cargo handlers get smashed as flat as a surfboard. Gives me a sunny outlook on this job.”

    Caine heard a soft hum, turned to see another vehicle gliding to a halt in the turning yard. As soon as the craft had settled to the deck, Yiithrii’ah’aash emerged from it, followed by a pair of Slaasriithi whose matching physiognomies differed slightly from his. Their necks were shorter, thicker: more like a giraffe’s than an ostrich’s. However, their bodies and limbs were longer, thinner. Their fingers were wraith-like tapers, as were their bifurcated prehensile tails. And instead of having Yiithrii’ah’aash’s stunted, toe-like protrusions, they had what appeared to be another set of full grasping tendrils in contact with the deck. Overall, whereas a quick glance at the ambassador’s odd-hipped torso produced the impression of a lean gibbon, his two associates’ bodies recalled lemurs on the edge of emaciation.

    “What’s wrong with them?” Buckley muttered.

    “Nothing. I think they’re part of a different taxon,” answered Ben Hwang.

    Buckley stared blankly at the word “taxon.”

    Well, it’s clear who doesn’t pay close attention during briefings.

    Ben moved forward to greet the new arrivals. “Ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash, I wonder if I might ask you a question about your companions: are they members of a different taxon?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s purr was long and continued beneath the first half of his reply. “Your perception is excellent, Doctor. They are members of a specialized sub-taxon, to be exact.” He turned to one of them.

    Which bobbed its head once, and spoke through a translator hanging beneath its arm. “I am a” — at which point the translator fumbled and spat random syllables. “We were induced to serve in environments where gravity is low or nonexistent. It was deemed prudent to encourage a return of certain features from our arboreal origins” — he/she/it wriggled the deck-splayed toe-fingers meaningfully — “to provide us with better grasping and maneuvering capabilities in zero-gee environments. I am incompletely informed, but I understand that in your own species, some of the same attenuations of skeleton and musculature are observed after several generations of low gravity breeding.”

    Gaspard, who had moved forward more slowly than Hwang, nodded. “Yes, this is so. However, we discourage this: it problematizes our social coherence.”

    “The inducement of a useful new subform tends the group toward disharmony?” The low-gee Slaasriithi’s neck seemed to quiver faintly, like a tuning fork losing the last vibrations of a tone. “I do not understand.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash intervened, several finger-tendrils uncoiling toward Gaspard. “You will appreciate that for those of us not well acquainted with humanity, your disapproval regarding a physical alteration in your species sounds contradictory. For us, social harmony is not physically dependent upon, nor a product of, homogeneity of form. To the contrary, our harmony arises from the diverse capabilities enabled by carefully selected variations in our forms. As you shall see more completely tomorrow. Now, allow me to enable access to your supplies.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash raised his “hand” which, Caine saw, was now sleeved in something that looked like a form-fitting glove moored by nonornamental rings and covered irregularly by studs. The ambassador’s prehensile fingers went through a set of impossible contortions, apparently bringing several of the rings and studs into rapid contact with each other. The heavy doors into the main cargo compartment clunked heavily: unlocked.

    Bannor, eyes still on Yiithrii’ah’aash’s glove and rings, raised an eyebrow. “That is one strange control device.”

    “Strange but effective,” Hwang murmured. “I bet they can get more combinations drummed out faster than we can with our touch screens. And it’s obviously versatile enough to interface with our own systems.” He followed Yiithrii’ah’aash into the cargomod. Caine trailed after.

    It was, on first impression, like entering the belly of an industrial age Leviathan. They stood at the threshold of a cavernous hexagonal tunnel, fifty meters long and twenty meters high. Two elevated gantries ran its length, the first one perched eight meters over the deck, the second at sixteen. Spools of zero-gee guide wires and their mooring points dotted the metal gridwork of ladders, decks, and stalls. And stacked upon or jammed against every available surface except the ground-level’s central walkway were universal lading containers of several different shapes.



    Nasr Eid smiled up into the cubist cave. “A toy box for a giant infant.”

    “Yeah, just don’t let any of those blocks fall on ya,” Tina Melah chuckled as she moved past with easy familiarity. “Buckley’s not the only one who’s spent some time in these death-traps.” She saw Nasr’s fearful look. “Now, now, no reason to get your jammies in a twist, Nasr. We’ve got steady rotation to keep everything where it’s already locked in place. But, if you go to zero gee, take a few hits, and have a few restraint bars break and lashings tear — well, then you’ve got some serious anvil-dodging fun on your hands!” She strode ahead into the dim bowels of the mod. Most of the others followed as motion-activated lights popped on, marking Tina’s progress down the length of the module. Caine strolled after them.

    Coming around a massive cargo pod, he discovered Joe Buckley seated on a small container, his hands covering his face. Keith Macmillan was standing nearby, saw Caine approach, shrugged.

    “Damn, it all looked fine at first,” Joe lamented, “but — oh Jesus H. Christ!” Buckley groaned as if he’d been bayoneted in the gut.

    “What’s wrong?”

    “What’s wrong? Christ, just look at it!”

    As Tygg and Oleg Danysh walked up, Caine looked around for the wrongness that so afflicted Joe. “Okay. And…what am I supposed to be seeing?”

    Tygg frowned, glanced at the hardcopy lading list attached to the cargo pod, checked it against the chip-coded inventory on his palmcomp. “Oh, they’ve bollixed all this right enough. Everything they sent with us is smart-tagged, but they split up most of the individual lots between the different containers.”

    Danysh grimaced. “Please, in words we all understand.”

    Buckley, sitting with his head in his hands, shouted. “Everything is all mixed up. Food packed in with electronics. Medical supplies layered into survival gear. And the damned index is chock full of errors, too. It’s like some work gang and their robots just pushed every container into the first empty space they could find, going as fast as they could and the hell with anything else.”

    Caine nodded. “Joe, this mission was put together in less than twenty-four hours. They pulled equipment and team-members from all around the fleet. That may have something to do with it.”

    “Probably has everything to do with it,” Buckley muttered. He looked up. “Captain, this is going to take days to untangle. Maybe weeks.”

    “I’ll see what I can do about getting you semi-regular access, Joe.”

    “But Captain –”

    “Joe, we’re here to open diplomatic relations with the Slaasriithi. Who might be the only species in the Accord willing to be our allies. And they want us all down planetside tomorrow. I don’t know what they might want after that. But here’s what I do know: those jobs come before this job.” Caine waved a hand at the mélange of mismatched bulk containers around them. “And here’s the first part of this job: you are to locate and data-tag all the defense and emergency stores.”

    “Well, I can get locator numbers out of the database pretty quickly. But I can’t verify that –”

    “We’ll work with whatever data you give us and I’ll provide the backs to move the gear. Get that list compiled and give it to Mr. Rulaine.”

    “Yes, sir. When do you need it done?”

    Caine stared at Buckley. “Five minutes ago. Any more questions?”

    Buckley blinked, shook his head. “No, sir.” He turned and jogged off into the deeper recesses of the cargo mod.

    Bannor had just arrived alongside Caine. “Did anyone ever mention that you have a really icy stare, sometimes?”

    “Not that I can remember.”

    “Well, then I’m the first. No wonder they made you an officer. What next?”

    “Next we gather all the security personnel and start moving our gear to the corvette and the lander.”

    Danysh started. “Are you expecting trouble, Captain?”

    “No, Dr. Danysh, but if it arises, I want to have our defense and emergency gear where we need it and ready to go. It won’t do us much good otherwise.”

    “Very well, I shall not intrude upon your preparations.”

    Or volunteer to help, Caine thought as the physicist made himself scarce. Riordan took a few steps away from Buckley toward the comparative privacy of a corner. He glanced at Macmillan, who strolled over.

    “Yes, Captain?”

    “I notice from your dossier that you and I have an acquaintance in common.”

    “Oh? And who would that be, sir?”

    “Richard Downing.”

    Keith smiled a big, congenial, shit-eating smile. “Richard Downing? Never heard of him. Or of you, Mr. Riordan. Or of your walk-about on Dee Pee Three which indirectly brought us to where we’re standing right now. No: never heard of any of that.” Macmillan’s Scottish burr was so faint as to be almost unnoticeable.

    Like a ghost emerging from shadows, Bannor drew up from the other side, jerked his head toward Keith. “Told you,” he muttered at Caine.

    Caine ignored him. “Mr. Macmillan, what was your mission after providing security for Spookshow Prime?”

    Macmillan kept smiling but stood a little straighter. “I have no knowledge of any missions relevant to your inquiry, sir, and would not be disposed to discuss them if I had.”

    Okay, so his responses were as genuine as the IRIS ID codes in his dossier. No reason to belabor the point. “I presume you had special orders embedded in the personal effects they shipped with you?”

    “Yes, sir. From this same Mr. Downing I’ve never heard of.”

    “And those orders are –?”

    “I’m to be your eyes and ears within the group, sir.”

    So, internal security. Prudent, although it was hard to imagine how even the Ktor could have managed to infiltrate the delegation with less than twenty-four hours’ notice. “Very well, Mr. Macmillan. What’s your cover role in the legation, then?”

    “As far as the personnel roster goes, I’m just a warrant officer from the integrated Commonwealth task force. Jack of all trades, master of none. In terms of command structure, I’d be below Miles O’Garran, and on a par with Trent Howarth.”

    Caine smiled. “Well, then” — he raised his voice — “Mr. Buckley, do you have a list yet? Mr. Macmillan is still waiting around for something heavy to carry.”

    Buckley came over with his palmcomp, transferred the defense and emergency stores inventory to Caine, Macmillan, and Bannor. “I don’t envy you guys. You’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”

    Bannor scanned the list. “We’re not going to get this done today.”

    “No, we’re not. So let’s get going on the priority items. Bannor, you find Tygg, Wu, O’Garran, and Howarth. We’re going to need all hands for this. Macmillan, you go with Buckley and have him electronically tag all the containers so they show up on our smartmaps.” Caine started to move off.

    Bannor held up his hand. “Whoa, Boss. Don’t take off until you tell us where to find you. What will you be doing?”

    Caine shrugged. “Moving the boxes. Like I said, ‘all hands.’ Let’s get going.”

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