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Raising Caine: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 12, 2015 19:56 EDT



In transit; GJ 1248’s inner system

    Caine stepped back, hands on his hips and shirt clinging to his sweaty back, as Yiithrii’ah’aash’s two helpers sealed the cargomod once again. Bannor nodded at the dull grey door, moved past Riordan. “Let’s get a beer. Sir.” He continued on to the pod-bus.

    Caine followed, discovered most of the passengers they traveled with on the previous ride. Sleeman and Lymbery had tarried to examine the quasi-biological extrusions that had extended into the module’s interior, up its sides and, after seamlessly merging with the docking sleeve, reportedly reemerged out in space, fusing into the mooring arms.

    As the pod-bus began the short run back to their habmod, Sleeman, still staring at the strange, grainy growths, leaned toward Lymbery. “That extrusion is not just a reinforcing structure. Through it, they’re extending their power and data grids to mesh with the ones in our cargo module. And I’ll bet it didn’t break any seals when it pushed out into free space: it just resumed growing in the vacuum. Probably completed the encystment of the cargomod.”

    Lymbery may have nodded.

    “But what’s really interesting is that the extrusions are not homogenic. They’re comprised of diverse strands, some of which seem to be evolving into power conduits, judging from the havoc they played with my magnetometer. It looks like the parts that are now in contact with our electrical and data junctures began as probes: gel cysts that contact, sample, and assess the interface. They measure and learn to replicate its electromagnetic ‘flavor,’ so to speak. Then, about an hour later, I saw what looked like a custom-grown interface biot being budded off from the end of that bioelectric vein. By the time we come back here again, I’ll bet that biot has evolved into a power transformer which converts Slaasriithi data and electric current into Terran equivalents and vice versa.” She waited, unaware that the entirety of the pod-bus was staring at her. Tygg’s face was a mix of awe and wonder. When Lymbery failed to react to her hypotheses, Melissa leaned in closer. “Well, whaddya think, Morgan?”

    Morgan Lymbery blinked as if roused from a waking dream, winced in annoyance. “All possible but excessively speculative. I remain focused on first matters.”

    “What first matters?” pursued Melissa, undeterred by Lymbery’s snappish response.

    “The chemical nature of the primary extrusions. I posit supramolecular liquid crystal templating or thermoplastic elastomers.”

    “Elastomers?” Melissa echoed skeptically. “Natural rubber and polypropylene isn’t likely to be biogenically organic. It’s softening temperature is too high and its glass transition temperature is still not rugged enough for –”

    “That analysis is unrealistically constrained to current human standards. Theoretical limits and permutations point toward lower temperature production ranges and broader operational durability limits. There are –”

    Melissa interrupted: Caine had the impression her focus on the topic was so intense that she wasn’t even aware she was being rude. “Yeah, but polypropylene is really nasty stuff. Even if its reliability regime could be expanded, how would an organism that’s carbon based not find that lethally toxic?”

    “Analysis flawed at root. Example: hydrochloric acid in the human stomach would be lethal to the parent organism if it escaped containment. Directly analogous internal safe containment systems possible. Also, capability for polypropylene extrusion does not require the storage of propylene itself. Raw stock for combination could be stored as separate constituent parts. Conversion into propylene occurs in peripheral organ or sac, which then immediately expels the compound as extrusions.”

    “And how –?”

    “Storage mediums could include ethylene and other compounds, exploiting olefin metathesis to reverse the necessary –”

    “Can someone translate?” Bannor grumbled. “Or get them to stop?”

    Caine smiled. “Melissa, Morgan, you might want to save the rest of your debate for the ride down to the planet tomorrow. We’re home.”

    “Home?” said Lymbery, rousing out of what had sounded like demonic possession by a chemistry computer. His wistful reaction to the word “home” hardened into adult resignation when he saw the entry to their habmodule. Perhaps, Caine speculated, he had expected to see the quaint roofs of the small Cotswold village from which he had revolutionized human naval architecture. “Oh. Here.” Lymbery sighed, exited the pod-bus.

    Caine exited last and was immediately set upon by Joe Buckley. “Captain,” Buckley began without the courtesy of a preamble, “I didn’t have enough time to get a full inventory of the contents of our individual survival packs.”

    Caine hadn’t minded being made an officer — until now. “Uh, Joe, if you have the standard allotments of each item in each pack, and you have the total number of packs, then you just multiply, and you have your inventory totals, right?”

    Joe shook his head. “Except the pack allotment data is bad. Most of the kits were upgraded after the fleet left Earth. So a lot of them have outdated content descriptions. The only way to get an accurate inventory is by checking each one.”

    “Can’t we get by with an estimate, instead of a precise accounting?”

    Buckley looked away. “Only if you’re willing to accept a pretty wide margin of error.”

    Caine couldn’t tell if he was hearing a tone of frustrated professionalism or innate anal retentiveness. “Joe, for now, take your best guess at the standard contents of the upgraded packs, and flag the result as ‘estimated.'”

    Joe looked away, someplace between disappointed and sullen. “Yeah. Okay. Captain.” He started into the habmodule.


    “Yes, sir?”

    “Don’t get stubborn and do something stupid.”

    Joe’s voice was now thoroughly respectful, if no less disappointed. “I won’t, sir. I understand the situation.”

    Caine almost believed that he did. “Good night, Joe.”

    “Goodnight, sir.”

    Caine sealed the hatch of the habmodule behind them, watched Joe slouch away toward his stateroom. Given Yiithrii’ah’aash’s warnings about the dangers of moving around the Slaasriithi ship unescorted, Riordan assured himself that no one was stubborn — or stupid — enough to take that kind of risk just to sort out some cargo. Not even Joe Buckley.



    Joe Buckley was that stupid.

    Unfortunately, he was also suspiciously proficient at bypassing electronics. He avoided triggering the exit alarm slaved to the inner airlock door. He anticipated and deactivated the touch-sensitive sensors lining every surface within the airlock itself, did the same with the laser trip-wires criss-crossing both the inner and outer hatch coamings, and overrode the lock and disabled the alarm on the outer hatch.

    All of which Caine realized in the jarring moment between being awakened by the sound of a repetitive warning tone and the approach of pounding feet. Riordan was already pulling on his duty-suit by the time Ben Hwang, still in shorts and tee shirt, opened his door and panted: “Buckley’s bio monitor in the dispensary just started coding. And he’s not in his cabin.”

    Damnit! I should have set a live guard, Caine hammered at himself as he yanked on his shoes and raced past Hwang. “Where does his transponder say he is?”

    “He’s off our structure; somewhere on theirs.”

    Oh for Christ’s sake —

    Bannor nearly collided with Caine as he charged out of his own stateroom. “What’s up?”

    “Buckley. On the Slaasriithi hull. Alone. His biomonitor has spiked.”

    “Just great. I’ll assemble a team.”

    Caine held Bannor’s considerable bicep a moment. “No. You keep Wu and Tygg back here with you. You’re the CO in my absence, and you keep everyone except my response team here in this module. You pulled the firearms from the security packs?”

    “As we discussed on the second day.”

    “Excellent. You’re to keep them hidden unless someone tries to leave. Then you use them to enforce the no-trespass rule that Buckley ignored.”

    “And now you’re going to ignore it, too? Bad plan, boss.”

    “Yes, a bad plan. Problem is that doing nothing could be worse. We don’t know what Buckley has done to set off his biomonitor. He could have damaged the ship, hurt a Slaasriithi. He’s our — he’s my — responsibility. I’ve got to get him back. I’ll take Miles, Trent, Keith, and…and the guy from Peking, the vet who’s an EMT?”

    “That would be me,” announced Xue Heng, who came striding up the hall. “I will get a med kit, Captain.”

    “Excellent. I’ll meet you at the hatch.”

    “Keep your collarcom open, Caine” Bannor called after him.

    “We all will. No way to know what we’re going to run into. Also, get me an earcam. I want you to see what we’re seeing.”

    “I’m on it.” Bannor peeled off into the habmod’s combination dress-out compartment and ship’s locker.

    Caine got two steps closer to the commons room when Gaspard’s voice emerged from his outsize stateroom. “Captain Riordan, what has happened?” Caine told him. Gaspard nodded. “I will ready a team to follow yours just as soon as –”

    “No. You will sit tight. This is a security matter and those are my orders. I’ve already spoken with Major Rulaine, who has instructions in case something happens to me. We discussed contingencies extensively on the trip out here. Now, I’ve got to go.”

    Gaspard was still trying to say something, but Caine didn’t have time to listen: according to Ben’s distant, rolling updates, whatever was happening to Buckley was getting more severe. His heart rate was dangerously high and his blood stream was awash with endorphins and a number of unknown substances.



    By the time Riordan reached the commons room, Miles, Trent, and Keith were there. All had guns. Caine shook his head.

    “But — ” began Miles.

    “No. We can’t. It’s not our ship. The Slaasriithi warned us against this. We can’t inflict any damage on them, or their ship, to save Buckley or even ourselves. Besides, guns are likely to exacerbate any misunderstandings that already exist among our hosts.” None of them looked happy as Heng arrived with a medkit and Bannor showed up with an earcam.

    Caine snugged the loop of the tiny device over his ear and added, “Look, this is my screw up: it was on me to ensure that this didn’t happen. So although I asked you to report here, this is strictly a volunteer mission.”

    Keith looked at the open hatch. “We’re wasting time.”

    Trent smiled his big easy smile. “After you, sir.”

    Caine, feeling very much that he did not deserve the loyalty of such fine persons, led the way.



    Halfway to the cargomod, underneath the sounds of the team’s sprinting progress, Riordan heard other footfalls. He turned: swift and surprisingly stealthy, Dora Veriden was following them. Damn it, what’s she doing here? But no time to stop now: her choice, her fate.

    As they rounded the second of the corridor’s slight bends, differences in speed began to stretch the group out. Trent — tall, athletic, in his twenties — was outpacing all of them. Miles and Heng, short legs pumping quickly, lost their early lead and started to drop behind, particularly Heng who, although a veteran, was not an active duty SEAL like O’Garran. Keith had originally outpaced Caine slightly, but age and a heavy, if muscular build, were wearing him down. Meanwhile, Dora Veriden, despite a much later start, had almost caught up to Heng.

    Trent looked back. Caine waved him on. The big Kiwi showed his real speed and started pulling far ahead.

    “You shouldn’t be out here.” The voice from over Caine’s shoulder was guttural, strained: Dora Veriden.

    Caine didn’t waste the breath on responding, saved it to try to keep pace with Trent.

    Veriden uttered an annoyed grunt, and, with a surprising burst of speed, pulled ahead of Riordan and started closing on the Kiwi. Good God, is she enhanced? Does Gaspard know? Would he have brought along an illegal –?

    Up ahead, Trent sprawled headlong just before the turn that led into the turning yard chamber. Veriden veered toward him — and went down an eye-blink later. They both tried to rise, but a mist seemed to be surging intermittently about them, battering them down. Damn it; what the hell –? “Are you seeing this, Ben? Any guesses?” Caine muttered into his collarcom.

    No response. Not even a carrier tone. Probably jammed by the Slaasriithi ship’s on-board electronic defenses.

    Caine veered toward the right hand wall, the one that led into the turn, kept running while he tried to make out whatever had hit Trent and Dora. But as far as he could tell, they were unharmed, unmarked, except they were covered in what looked like cobwebs —

    Webs –?

    Caine glanced up. Where the walls met the ceiling, there was a dark seam, rimmed by the same substance which had extruded itself across the cargomod. Could it also conceal something like spinnerets?

    Caine hadn’t realized he’d slowed so much and was surprised when both O’Garran and Macmillan raced past him to help Trent and Dora. As they did, vapor-fine filaments jetted downward, so thick that they created the impression of fog.

    Within half a second, the strands that had landed on Macmillan stiffened, and the increased resistance brought him down. However, O’Garran managed to dance out of the spray pattern — or had he? Given its density and dispersion, that seemed impossible, unless —

    Had the filaments only hit O’Garran because he was close to Macmillan? No time to observe or think: those spinnerets are still spraying. If there’s a better chance to be had by rushing through while they’re busy with Macmillan —

    Caine sprinted toward the corner, felt some of the filaments land on him, felt them change consistency: one moment they were as loose as a strand of hair, the next they were steel thread. But the few that hit him were just nuisances, had evidently been aimed at Macmillan.

    As Riordan and O’Garran rounded the corner, they also detected the first whiffs of an astringent, medicinal smell.

    “Gas?” O’Garran panted, struggling to run. The hardened fibers across of the front of his duty suit had hardened in to a mostly immobile cast.

    “Probably,” gasped Caine. “The others: they alive?”

    “Think so. Breathing.”


    O’Garran started lagging as the scent of the gas rose behind them. “Go,” he said.

    Riordan nodded. There was nothing else to do, although helping Joe Buckley — whose skills evidently included those possessed by accomplished felons — had now become a rather ironic objective.

    As Caine rounded the final corner into the turning yard, he heard a thump well behind him; O’Garran had gone down. Pushing back against a surge of vomit, Riordan sprinted across the chamber’s circular expanse, came up short when he confronted the cargomod’s still-open doors. The fibrous extrusions now resembled a mahogany lava flow that ran from the bay of the Slaasriithi vessel into the cargomod as one seamless mass. And from beyond that resinous cavern mouth, Riordan heard a single, child-high shriek.

    Riordan’s plunge through the doorway was reflexive, but not incautious. Uncertain of what he’d find, he went in low and straight toward cover. But there was no fight in progress, no torture, not even any Slaasriithi or intruders to be seen: just Joe Buckley’s distant torso, squirming irregularly beyond one of the motion-activated lights, halfway along the length of the cargomod.

    Caine jumped up, sprinted those twenty yards, scanning for tools as he went, preparing to help Buckley however he could — but stopped when he saw Joe’s predicament. And thought: what the hell is that? — and what the hell can I do?

    Vac-suited Joe Buckley seemed to be pinned to the wall next to one of the cargomod’s primary power mains. But in the next moment, Caine realized that the extrusions which had snaked down the wall toward the mains were holding Joe up. But no, that wasn’t quite right, either —

    They had transfixed Joe, and were growing, even now, toward the cargomod’s power mains, burrowing through his body to do so. In the one paralyzed second that it took for Riordan to understand what he was seeing, more of Buckley’s abdomen sagged. The hole in it widened, the extrusions leaking a slow but constant secretion that was, from the smell of it, highly alkaline. Joe seemed to rouse out of a stupor, yelled incoherently, sobbed back into quasi-consciousness.

    Caine looked around: a power-saw. Hand-sized, the kind used to cut off locks or through simple sheet steel. He grabbed it off the deck, jumped next to Buckley to get to the power mains — and discovered what had probably initiated the horrific scenario.

    The power mains were covered by a luminescent polyp that emerged from the extrusion burrowing through Buckley’s body. Another such polyp, lifeless and dull, lay on the deck, evidently torn aside by Buckley when he attempted to connect the saw to the mains and scorched his hands trying. Beyond the burnt meat smell, the air was thick with the medicinal tang of the gas from the corridor, but it was stale, had probably been used at the outset. Apparently, the gas had also kept Joe senseless as the extrusion burrowed through his body in its unswerving purpose: to get to the power mains.

    Caine spent one moment looking at the situation, waiting for a solution — any solution — to come to him. But the only course of action that he could think of was the same that would have occurred to his Cro-Magnon ancestors. Without attempting to plug it in, and using his left hand to cover his nose and mouth, Riordan slammed the hand saw down across the conductive polyp attached to the mains.

    A blast of heat and energy sent him backwards. The extrusion transfixing Buckley, which had seemed as solid as a stalagmite a moment ago, writhed. Buckley’s eyes opened into panic and pain as the spasms of the extrusion widened the wound, his weight slamming back and forth against the dark root-like protrusion upon which he was impaled. He shrieked. Blood spattered. A fresh wave of the astringent smell preceded a glistening rush of the corrosive fluid which had already eaten a hole through Buckley’s torso. The edges of that gore-rimmed gap widened more rapidly. Fumes arose as tissue and fluids bubbled.

    As Caine rose, groggy but resolved to try again, Joe’s screams became more desperate, his writhing wilder — which brought him fractionally closer to the mains. Apparently, the once-luminous fluid that splattered on him when he’d smashed the first polyp remained a powerful conductor. Actinic, blue-white charges danced out of the mains’ sockets and along vaporous trails leading to Buckley’s chest and shoulders. The smell of charring flesh increased along with the smell of the gas. Caine staggered forward, fell to his knees. The scene began doubling, the sounds blurry and indistinct as Buckley’s desperate struggles transformed into spasmodic convulsions —

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