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Raising Caine: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Friday, August 21, 2015 20:17 EDT



Bioband’s valland; GJ 1248 One (“Adumbratus”)

    Karam Tsaami was in the pilot’s seat of the delta-shaped lander and was not at all happy. He hadn’t been since the slightly smaller, but more versatile and rugged Euro model had been stricken from the legation’s inventory just hours before their departure from Sigma Draconis Two. Two small maintenance glitches and sub par thrust measurements resulted in the mission planners going to the second vehicle on the roster. The TOCIO-manufactured Embra-Mitsu lander was capacious, but also more lightly built and, if push came to shove, simply didn’t have the thrust-to-mass ratio of the EU model, despite its responsiveness.

    Karam’s displeasure was increased when the Slaasriithi prohibited the legation’s Wolfe-class corvette from serving as the lander, citing its paucity of passenger couches. Karam had argued the milspec advantages of the craft’s speed, agility, toughness, and systems redundancy. Yiithrii’ah’aash had patiently heard him out and then explained that the humans had to land in their own craft and only one, if possible. So the Embra-Mitsu would suffice. The career pilot had muttered imprecations and suspicions about the Slaasriithi just finding a convenient excuse to keep them from landing in a warship. Caine observed that this might be true but, given the nasty surprise that Joe Buckley had dealt to everyone’s easy confidence in the safety of the mission, Yiithrii’ah’aash certainly had the right to err to the side of caution. Tsaami’s dark grumblings did not cease, but they did subside.

    Karam put his hand on the hard-dock release lever, and called out, “I need a vocal confirm that you are strapped in. All the green lights on my board are not good enough.”

    A confirming chorus came from the passenger compartment. The three other persons in the cockpit — copilot Qin Lijuan, planetologist Hirano Mizuki, and Riordan, whose ostensible job was security overwatch of flight operations — murmured their own assent.

    Karam pulled the handle; he preferred manual controls for some functions. “Okay, everyone, we’ve got some odd descent telemetry on this ride, so be prepared for a few sharper-than-average turns. Here we go.” He puffed the attitude control thrusters to put the nose down and in line with the trajectory guidons and waypoint boxes painted on his HUD visor. The world beneath them rose into view — and revealed itself to be a world like no human had ever seen before.



    Riordan stared at the faintly ovate planet. Scientists and planetologists had speculated that such worlds would — indeed, must — exist. Its primary, a red dwarf labeled GJ 1248, was just thirty-nine million kilometers away. Consequently, the planet was not only face-locked to the star, but had been structurally deformed by it.

    Qin Lijuan’s eyes were wide. “Is it slightly egg-shaped?”

    Hirano Mizuki nodded. “The inner pole, the part of the planet always closest to the star, was constantly stretched in that direction throughout its formation.”

    “Which is one of the two things that makes landing here so challenging.” Karam was fussing with his instruments, particularly his navigational sensors. “I’ve never had to put down on a world which isn’t functionally a sphere. Orbit tracks are messed up. The relationship between altitude and gravity are skewed.”

    Qin Lijuan was studying the instruments carefully. “Because in a sphere, a constant orbital altitude means constant distance from the center of gravity.”

    “Right. But here, not so much.”

    “Would a polar orbit be better? If you remain consistently over the meridian, you will be able to follow a roughly circular orbit with roughly consistent gravity.”

    Karam nodded. “That’s what I’m shooting for. But it’s easier said than done, lacking a full planetary survey and nav charts. The Slaasriithi relayed the relevant astrophysical data, but the software on this barge doesn’t have a preset template for a non-spherical planet.”

    Riordan glanced at Karam. “So you’re running the nav numbers in real-time?”

    “No other way, Captain. Couldn’t run a simulation since I didn’t have the time to write a custom subroutine. So we’ll still need some adjustments on the way in. You ready to help with that, Lieutenant Qin?”

    Her hands rested confidently, lightly upon the controls. Qin Lijuan didn’t even bother to nod; she simply glanced at him.

    Karam rolled the shuttle, boosted so that its approach to the planet became oblique. Riordan watched as GJ 1248 A’s sun-blasted surface swam across to the right hand side of the cockpit windows, sinking as it went.

    Qin’s left eyebrow raised. “We’re going down there? Without hard suits?”

    Hirano Mizuki’s answering smile was almost invisible. “We won’t need anything more than filter masks.”

    Qin’s other eyebrow rose to join the first. “How is that possible?” She tracked a raging, twister-pocked dust storm as it scoured its way across the ochre flatlands over which they were passing. “The temperature down there must be over two hundred degrees centigrade.”

    Hirano nodded. “More, in places.”

    Riordan glimpsed the terminator, the line marking the border where the perpetually sun-scorched side of the planet gave way to its perpetually lightless hemisphere, and noted that it was peculiarly smudged: not at all like the hard, crisp demarcation that he had seen while orbiting comparably featureless moons and planets. Is that a lifezone lying along the terminator?”

    Karam nodded. “Yeah. Yiithrii’ah’aash briefed me on this for a grand total of two minutes while you were sleeping off the gas. The Slaasriithi call this kind of world a meridiate. A face-locked world that is large enough to retain both an atmosphere and some water can develop what they call a bioband that follows the terminator’s meridian.”

    The bioband was only a few hundred kilometers wide, and the sunward margin of it still showed no sign of water or plant-life. But whereas the far wastes of the sunward face were flat and uniform in both color and reflectivity, the margins where it abutted the bioband shaded into darker patches. There were also more geological irregularities along that fringe. Glacial deformations resembling dried finger lakes, hillocks and successive ridgelines paralleled the edge of the zone that human planetologists that speculatively labeled the “life-belt.” The ridges became higher and more frequent as they receded toward the more shadowed center of the zone.

    “Terminal moraines,” Hirano commented.

    Caine nodded, watching them accumulate and stacking into a washboard collection of faint, meridian-following ribs. “The limits of a glacial advance?”

    Hirano nodded. “Yes. We can’t see the darkside glacier yet — most of it will be well-shadowed — but it won’t be a perfectly stable formation. Stellar flares and libration will change the temperatures in the bioband. With those changes will come glacial advances and retreats. And every time the glacier retreats, it will leave behind one of those.” She gestured down at one of the ridges paralleling the further, darker reaches of the bioband.

    Riordan watched Karam align the shuttle to follow the same meridian-riding track of the terminal moraine. “Assuming that there is any periodicity to temperature change, there should be some spot where the glacier is most likely to halt, right?”

    “Yes,” Hirano confirmed with an eager nod. “That moraine should be the highest, being a compound of multiple terminal deposits. It would logically function as a kind of sunside ‘wall,’ according to some of the planetological predictions.”

    Karam glanced at Hirano Mizuki. “I’m not unfamiliar with planetology, given my job, but I’ve never even heard of speculations about a world like this — uh, ‘meridiate.'”



    “Such work is uncommon,” Hirano admitted in a small voice.

    Caine smiled. “You wouldn’t happen to be one of those rare researchers, would you, Mizuki?”

    Her answering smile was also small. “I have shared my opinions in one or two papers.”

    Karam snorted, but it was not a derisive sound. “Figures.” He boosted the craft slightly. “Pretty lively air here where the hotside drafts are zooming across to equalize the subzero soup on the dark side. We’ve just started biting into the atmosphere and I can already feel the buffeting.”

    “You can?”

    “Sure,” Karam answered as Qin Lijuan nodded her confirmation.

    “I can’t,” Hirano confessed.

    “That’s because it’s not your job,” Karam observed. “And that’s why we’re landing this barge in a hands-on mode. We’re depending as much on the feel of this bird and the nav-sensor readings as we are on the avionics and the flight computer.” Karam put his palm on the manual throttle and pushed the thrust higher, along with the shuttle’s nose.

    Riordan felt the increased, thready vibration through his seat. “Isn’t this when we would normally be backing off the thrusters?”

    Karam didn’t turn away from his instruments, but Caine could see a smile quirk the rearmost corner of his mouth. “So, you have been paying attention during the sims.”

    “Weeks of running them again and again will even help a newb like me,” Riordan replied.

    Karam nodded tightly as the shuttle jounced, settled, seemed to float upward on a giant palm before dropping down sharply. “To answer your question: yeah, at this point, we’d normally be backing off the thrust, letting the belly soak up the energy of our descent as we serpentine in to dump velocity. But here, that protocol would get us killed. We’ve got to get through the turbulence of the air masses moving from the brightside to the darkside. We need powered flight for that. And our glide path, even from this altitude, is fundamentally perpendicular to the plane of the equator.”

    “Because we are making a longitudinal, not latitudinal, approach?”

    “Correct, Captain,” Qin Lijuan answered, who was now in control of the shuttle as Karam plotted telemetry changes to compensate for new meteorological data. “However, it will not be convenient to answer further questions at this time.”

    Riordan reflected that he really didn’t have any more flight related questions, now that the life-sustaining sections of the bioband were in plain view. It was a meandering valley cut with swathes of mauve, maroon, teal and aqua foliage, and they were slowly angling down into it from the hotside.

    The thermals came in layers, the faint shuddering of the calm belts alternating with teeth-rattling surges from the more super-heated currents. At times, Karam and Lijuan had to fight to keep the shuttle from rolling by nosing slightly into the drafts, being pushed sideways as they maintained dynamic equilibrium against the lateral forces until they could get underneath each successive current.

    After almost a quarter hour of jostling alongside and against the cyclonic winds rushing toward the distant glacial wall of the darkside, Lijuan was finally able to bring the nose back down. The shuttle slipped beneath the level of the terminal moraine which rose up like a long, high ridgeline interspersed with hillocks. As the craft did so, the orange-red light coming in the cockpit windows dimmed, the shielding ridge blocking the line of sight to the sun. The wide valley beneath them swum into sharper focus with the loss of the glare: patches of spongy aquamarine plant canopy snugged against the backside of the ridge. Swards of dusky maroon and vibrant violet flora reached out from its foot, shot through with occasion streaks and patches of white-washed ultramarine and teal. The sharply separated colors chased up and down faint bowl-shaped depressions, in and out of faint hollows where thin water courses glimmered in the indirect lighting.

    “Damn,” muttered Karam, “I’ve been to at least half the green worlds out beyond Epsilon Indi. Half of the brown ones, too. But this –”

    “Different?” Caine asked.

    “And then some.”

    Hirano, her nose pushed up against the cockpit glass, nodded in eager agreement.

    Lijuan, who had transitioned back to dynamic controls, initiated the landing sequence. Two of the thrusters slowly rotated into a vertical attitude as the landing gear began groaning out of their wheel-wells.

    “How long, Lieutenant?” Riordan asked.

    “Four minutes, sir.”

    “Then it’s time to have the rest of the mission break out the filter masks. We’ve got a planet to visit.”



    With the entirety of the legation sheltering under the still-warm belly of the lander, Gaspard approached Caine and flipped open the speaking port beneath the filters of his mask. “Your security personnel seem pensive, Captain. Have you passed them any warnings of which I should be aware?”

    Riordan squinted into the strangely diffuse light, saw that Yiithrii’ah’aash had now debarked from his own craft. Two significantly shorter but stockier Slaasriithi were approaching from the edge of the landing pad, carrying what appeared to be boxes. Caine shook his head. “No, I haven’t issued any special orders, Ambassador. My personnel just don’t like being tasked to protect against threats if they don’t have weapons.”

    “And you have similar feelings?”

    Riordan shrugged. “After what happened with Buckley, I can hardly blame our hosts for not allowing us to carry devices which could turn a simple misunderstanding into a massacre. Besides, I think the last thing the Slaasriithi want to do is to harm us.”

    “I find it refreshing, if surprising, that you agree with our hosts, and with me, in this matter.”

    “I do,” affirmed Caine, “but that’s not the same thing as saying that I don’t understand how my security team feels or that I don’t share their sentiments. I simply concur that, in this place and at this time, it’s best for us to leave our weapons behind. Besides, I don’t think Yiithrii’ah’aash was going to brook any debate on the topic.”

    Gaspard’s voice conveyed what sounded like a rueful smile. “On that point we are in complete agreement, my good Riordan.”

    As Yiithrii’ah’aash and his attendants drew close, the ambassador unfurled several long fingers into an undulating greeting.

    Tygg’s sotto voce comment rose up from the rear of the ragged cluster of humans. “We wave hands; they wave fingers.”

    That prompted a few chuckles and giggles, one of which came from Melissa Sleeman. Which means that Tygg is wearing a big, stupid smile right now. As Riordan raised a hand to return Yiithrii’ah’aash’s greeting, he stole a quick look at the ambassador’s new companions. These Slaasriithi were not only smaller and stocky, but had lightly furred, symmetrical protrusions where a hominid’s short ribs would be located. Yiithrii’ah’aash noted Caine’s curious stare. “They are not neoplasms, as you might conjecture if you relied upon visual parallels from your own physiology.”

    Rena Mizrahi answered before Riordan could formulate an adequate response. “I can see that: the protrusions are too regular, both in their own shape, and in their bilateral placement.” She pulled in a deep, air-testing breath as she continued to assess the two protrusions on each of the new Slaasriithi. “The air here is somewhat thin. Are those bulges, uh, symbiotic — living — air compressors?”



    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s purr rose in a surprised surge. “You are quite correct, Doctor. We rarely induce special subtaxae to care-take xenobiomes during their transitional phases. Rather, we provide the most suitable extant subtaxae with symbiots that allow them to adjust to the local environment without resorting to intrusive devices.” He paused, his sensor-cluster head swiveling more directly toward Riordan, who realized he had blinked several times during Yiithrii’ah’aash’s explanation. “You are perplexed, Caine Riordan?”

    “No,” Caine confessed, “but your explanation left me with about a dozen questions. And I can’t figure out where to begin.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s purr modulated into a subaudial hum. “We will have time for all those questions after today. By then, I expect some of those queries will have been answered, others will have changed, and many, many more will have arisen. For now, let us walk into this world we call — well, in the dead language you use for attaching scientific classifications to objects, it would roughly translate as Adumbratus. But before our journey, we ask that you spray yourself with the contents of these canisters.”

    Responding without any overt summons, Yiithrii’ah’aash’s two companions brought forth the boxes that actually proved to be semi-rigid angular bags. They dispensed the canisters.

    “What does this do?” asked Morgan Lymbery, squinting at the container suspiciously. It appeared to be made of a very fine-grained version of the same material which comprised the extrusions that secured their cargo-mod — and that had burrowed straight through Joe Buckley.

    Yiithrii’ah’aash was already dousing himself with a mist from one of the containers. “The contents are scent markers, adapted from both our own pheromones and local spores. The latter ensures that the local biota will find you wholly uninteresting, and the former ensures that our own transplanted biota will be affined to you.”

    “Affined?” asked Tina Melah. “Is that still a word?”

    “Was it ever?” echoed Trent Howarth.

    “Actually,” answered Esiankiki, “it is the past-tense verb form of ‘to have affinity for.'” She turned to Yiithrii’ah’aash. “So your own flora and fauna will identify us as living beings who are non-threatening?”

    “That is a most adequate summation, Ms. Salunke.”

    “How easily does it come off?” asked Dora Veriden darkly from the back of the group.

    “The markers are not readily soluble. They do not simply remain on your skin, but will, by osmosis, vest in the outermost cells of your epidermis. This contact with your own fluids enhances their duration and eliminates the risk of dissolution.”

    “That’s not what I was concerned about,” Veriden muttered.

    As the group applied the spray, Yiithrii’ah’aash continued. “We will be near hard shelter at all times. You must follow me, or our guides, to that cover quickly in the event of a solar flare. This is a low-activity period for GJ 1248, but no star has fully predictable cycles and red dwarfs have the greatest proclivity to deviate from their own patterns.

    “Lastly, while there are few bioforms on this planet that would intentionally threaten you, no environment is without risks. This is why you are wearing filter masks in addition to the scent markers. Various airborne spores are present here, and since no humans have visited this environment before, we cannot be certain of their effect upon your respiratory tract. However, we have been able to ascertain that, if you keep your duty-suits sealed and your masks on, you need fear no exposure hazards for several weeks, at least. Now, please follow me.”

    As the legation trailed Yiithrii’ah’aash across the tarmac, Riordan realized that the surface was comprised of neither macadam nor tar, but, from the look of it, was some kind of finely-threaded plant that had hardened into a chitinous mass.

    Bannor drew alongside Riordan. “Moment of your time?”

    “Take as many as you’d like.”

    The landing pad underfoot smoothed into what seemed like a vast plastic expanse. “After what happened with Buckley, I think we have to assume that some of our team members may be, well, infiltrated.”

    Caine made sure that neither his face nor his gait changed. “Hard to see how. No one knew this trip was coming, and Downing, Sukhinin, and Rinehart reviewed the final candidates with very fine-toothed combs.”

    “Agreed, but still we’ve got Buckley dead trying to break into his own, or maybe someone else’s, gear. And we won’t get a chance to learn anything more until the Slaasriithi give us access to the cargomod again. But in the meantime –”

    Caine suppressed a nod. “In the meantime, we have to presume that where there’s one inexplicable wildcard, there could be others. I just don’t see what an enemy agent would hope to achieve, or how.”

    “Neither do I. And Buckley could simply have awakened into this gig knowing that he had to get rid of some incriminating black-market goods that were sent along with his gear. But we can’t rely on that supposition.”

    “Agreed. But since we can’t confirm that or some other motive, we’d just be spinning our wheels when it comes to internal security protocols. So, we’ll have to be on constant watch for anything suspicious. Which means we won’t be watching anything very well.”

    “No argument, sir. But one suggestion, if you don’t mind.”

    “Look, Bannor: I’m not a professional soldier or a covert operative, so I’m glad for any advice you care to give.”

    “First, don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t put safeguards in place after Buckley started acting hinky. Everyone makes mistakes in this business. And although you started as an amateur, you’re losing rookie status pretty quickly. Second, and more important, make sure you keep some distance from Keith Macmillan.”

    “Do you think he could be suborned?”

    Bannor clucked his tongue. “If I thought that, I’d tell you to stick to him like a tick. Never let your enemies out of sight. No, I’m thinking he’s your best bet for sniffing out if something is brewing in the legation.”

    “You mean sabotage?”

    “I don’t think that’s likely, but as you’ve said, we’ve got no leads and no hypothesis, only nonspecific worries. In that situation, the most valuable asset you can have is a pair of eyes and ears that no one knows is a member of IRIS. So if you chat with Keith too often, or act as though you have innate trust of him, then any plants in the group will notice. That means you lose Macmillan as the one trump card that you’ve got mixed into the deck but can pull out at any moment. Keep him as a secret asset that might either tweak to a plot in the making, or who can be in the right place to reverse a — well, an unfortunate incident.” Rulaine squinted ahead, toward a cluster of low, squat cone-like trees. “You would not believe how often problems arise in the most unlikely places and for the most unlikely reasons.”

    Caine remembered narrowly avoided assassination attempts on Delta Pavonis Three, in deep space, in Washington DC, in Greece, at the Convocation, on Barney Deucy. “Major Rulaine, that is one bit of tactical wisdom of which I do not need to be convinced.”

    Rulaine grinned crookedly at him. “No, I don’t suppose you do.”

    They reached the edge of the pseudo-tarmac as Yiithrii’ah’aash led the legation to join with a cluster of Slaasriithi from the same subtaxon as his new attendants. Continuing onward, the ambassador began gesturing and explaining something about the grove of bush-trees which they were entering.

    “Come on,” urged Caine. “Let’s not miss the tour.”

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