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Raising Caine: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Monday, August 31, 2015 23:26 EDT



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

    Caine started shouting instructions into his collarcom. “Tygg, did you hear Bannor’s report?”

    “Most of it. I think. Commo’s scratchy.”

    “Stay close to the ambassadors. You and O’Garran set up a defensive perimeter with the others. If Yiithrii’ah’aash can do something about the situation, have him do it quickly. Without weapons, all we can do is throw sticks and shout. Doubt that’s going to do very much.”

    “I’m on it.”

    Riordan changed the com channel. “Bannor, is Wu with you?”

    “No, back with Macmillan.”

    Damn it. “So who’s closest to Veriden?”

    “Me and you. But I’m just topping the rise that she got chased off of. Karam took off after the critter that rushed her. More guts than brains, that guy. But he’s dropping behind pretty quickly.”

    Caine swerved off the path they’d followed, headed out into the alien undergrowth. “Can you still see Veriden and the — the creature?”

    “Yeah, but –”

    “Then stay right where you are. You’re the only one with eyes on both objectives. Can you see me yet? I’m coming around the northern spur of the drumlin.”

    “No, I — yes: you just came into sight.”

    “Good. I can’t see Dora or the creature, so talk me into an intercept. And talk Veriden toward me.”

    “Yeah, but what the hell are you going to do?”

    “Find a handy rock and hope to hell it doesn’t want to tackle two of us. Talk Karam toward us also, and Howarth. Have Wu and Macmillan watch our backs for more critters. They might not hunt alone.”

    “I’m on it. For now, angle a little to your left. You’ve got about a minute of running ahead of you. Well, maybe more.” The carrier wave snicked off.

    Riordan heard yelling behind him, then multiple pages to his collarcom from random team-members. He ignored it all. Bannor would either intervene and play switchboard or delegate it to Tygg, but either way, combat experience had taught Caine that when you are at the tip of the spear, you cannot see and coordinate the big picture. His only job was to keep closing, stay alert, and listen for updates.

    Which came in fast enough. “Caine,” Bannor shouted, “swerve into that gulch you’re approaching on the right. I got Dora to duck in there. She’ll be coming straight toward you. With company right behind.”

    “Roger that. Where’s Karam?”

    “Bringing up the rear. Probably wishing he’d spent a few more hours in the gym.”

    “You get a look at the thing chasing Dora?”

    “Nope. Just saw its dust.”

    “Veriden tell you anything?”

    “She’s too busy sprinting, breathing, and cursing.”

    Can’t say I blame her. “Any sign of other predators?”

    “Nope. Yiithrii’ah’aash’s signal is bad, but he made it clear that this creature is not a pack predator.”

    Well, some good news at last. “Send Macmillan and Wu after me once the rest of the legation has regrouped under Tygg’s protection. And send out the ex-military EMT from Peking, Xue.”

    “You’ve got it — and you should have a visual any moment now.”

    “Maybe, but I’ve got a big boulder in my way. I’m going to have to go arou –”

    Riordan dodged a blur that shot out from the blind side of the boulder: Dora Veriden. She detected Caine just before colliding with him: her side-stepping dodge morphed effortlessly into the karate move known as a back-stepping shuto, or knife-hand block. Damn. Bodyguard, indeed.

    “Shit, Riordan: are you trying to kill me with a body block?”

    “Hello yourself. Find a weapon. How far behind you is it?”

    “We have three seconds. Fan out.”

    Which seemed the only thing to do. Caine spotted and scooped up a hand-sized stone the same moment he saw a new blur come around the boulder. He went into a sideways ready stance, stone cocked back —

    And stared. The creature halted abruptly, might have been staring back. But Riordan couldn’t tell because he could not discern any obvious eyes. Hell, nothing was obvious about this critter.

    Clearly one of Adumbratus’ indigenous species, it was a chitinous triped standing — crouching? — over two meters tall. Its smooth legs swept upward into curved, articulated joints. Its ovate thorax was topped by a tapering, swaying neck sheathed in reticulated plates. The head resembled a hyper-streamlined balpeen hammer, black specks chasing down either side of it like a dotted line. The underside of the hammer’s head snapped up and down once; not a typical predator’s jaws — no fangs or decisively sharp teeth — but the force of that surprised bite at empty air would have put a grizzly bear to shame.

    The creature — a blend of dark cerulean and cyan with black-violet racing stripes — started toward Caine but then flinched toward Dora again. Wait: did it feint at me before attacking her? Or was it jumping away from me? One way to find out —

    Riordan leapt into the space between the creature and Dora.

    The blue tripod-nightmare drew up short, rattled ominously from someplace in the rear of its balpeen head, but finally jerked back. It swayed from side to side.

    Caine swayed with it.

    More annoyed rattling. It feinted as though it might try to slip through the gap between Riordan and the boulder, and thereby get to Dora, but Caine had the measure of the creature: its aversion to him precluded its use of that excessively narrow space. Anticipating its ploy, Caine jumped to the other side.

    The tripod, leaping to exploit what it clearly hoped would be a widened hole in Caine’s other flank, thrashed in midair, screeching like china plates in a woodchipper as it collapsed into an abortive tangle of limbs.

    Veriden moved to stand just behind Caine. “Coño,” she muttered.

    “Yeah,” Riordan agreed. He took a step forward.

    The blue and black monster, having just regained its tripedal footing, skittered backward. It quivered, as if at the end of an invisible leash. Caine had no knowledge of the fauna of GJ 1248, and damn little of any other planet besides Earth’s, but the creature’s intents were unmistakable. It desperately wanted to leap forward, to trample and gut Riordan. But a countervailing impulse was holding it back: not mere uncertainty, or fear, but a shuddering aversion akin to a human resisting immersion in bleach.

    From the direction of the trail and from beyond the boulder, distant cries were growing rapidly louder.

    With a swiftness that Riordan had never seen in a quadruped — possibly because this creature’s body didn’t turn; its thorax simply rotated — the tripedal attacker skittered off, raising up a considerable cloud of dust.

    Caine, duty suit sticking to his sweat-covered body, shouted into the collarcom, “Bannor, call off Karam. Make sure that thing’s got an unobstructed route of retreat.”

    “Already done. And Jesus, is that monster fast. So much for ‘no predators worth worrying about.’ I’m really interested to hear how Yiithrii’ah’aash is going to explain that one.”

    “Yeah,” Caine agreed. And I’m going to be even more interested to learn why it avoided me like the plague — and hunted Veriden like she was dinner.



    Caine’s hair was still damp from showering when his stateroom’s privacy chime rang. “Computer: permit entry.” Then, louder: “Come in.”

    Ben Hwang and Bannor Rulaine stepped through the opening hatchway. “Got a minute?” asked the major.

    “Probably just about that. We haven’t heard from Yiithrii’ah’aash since getting back to the ship, but he’ll want to chat with us pretty soon.”

    Hwang nodded. “Undoubtedly. Gaspard is concerned that today’s events could derail what he calls the ‘relationship fundament of initial diplomatic overtures.'”

    “Do you think Gaspard spoke that way before he attended the Sorbonne?”

    Hwang sighed. “Bannor, I suspect he came out of the womb speaking that way. But he may be right. Yiithrii’ah’aash cut the tour a lot shorter than he intended and has been very reticent since.”

    Caine shrugged. “Yes, but I’m not sure that’s indicative of disappointment or anger with us.”

    Ben folded his arms. “No? Why not?”

    “Look, we don’t know why that creature didn’t avoid Veriden’s scent marker, but the bottom line is that our visit to Yiithrii’ah’aash’s ‘safe’ planet went to hell in a hand-basket. It was like going to a new friend’s house who tells you that his dog doesn’t bite, and then looking down to find its jaws locked on your leg. So Yiithrii’ah’aash may be as embarrassed as he is upset.”

    “Yes, but Gaspard is still worried that Yiithrii’ah’aash will reassess whether the Slaasriithi should ally with us.”

    Which might be a blessing in disguise. But what Riordan said was: “That’s a reasonable trepidation.” He sat, looked at Bannor. “So, you were going to speak with Dora.”

    Bannor nodded. “I did.”

    “She didn’t know why that thing might have attacked her?”

    “We didn’t get that far. She pulled rank and clammed up.”

    Hwang stared. “She pulled rank? How? She’s part of our security detachment, right?”

    Riordan shook his head. “Technically, she is Gaspard’s personal security asset. She doesn’t have to coordinate with, or report to, me at all. Unless she wants to. Or Gaspard instructs her to do so.”

    Bannor nodded. “Which was the line she took with me.”

    Hwang’s stare had grown wider. “So we can’t get her to answer questions about the incident until he, or she, says so?”

    Bannor’s nod seemed to trigger the privacy chime. Caine raised his voice. “Come in.”

    Dora Veriden entered, looking more sullen than usual. Caine stood, resisted the urge to comment on her extraordinary timing. “Hello, Ms. Veriden. How are you feeling?”

    Her incongruously elfin features went from dour to vinegary. “You keep asking me that: why?”

    “I only asked you one other time: right after the creature ran away. I’m checking that you’re doing okay.”

    “Listen: when it was chasing me, I wasn’t so okay. That’s over. So now I’m okay. Is that so hard to understand?”



    Riordan suppressed a sigh. “I understand that, Ms. Veriden. But I don’t understand your attitude. You’re part of the legation, and I’m concerned with your welfare, both professional and personal. That’s all.” He gestured toward a seat as he resumed his own.

    Dora ignored the gesture. “Look, I don’t need your personal concern. And professionally, the only person who has any reason, or right, to inquire after my status is my employer: Ambassador Gaspard.”

    Riordan shook his head. “That’s not quite accurate, Ms. Veriden. He is certainly the only person who can give you security-related directives.” Which is a bad arrangement, but that’s a different topic. “However, as a member of this legation, your moment-to-moment personal safety is my responsibility. Whether you like it or not.”

    “Not,” Dora answered. And finally took a seat.

    Well, I’ve got to give her points for bluntness. “Ms. Veriden, while I’d have been glad for you to stop by on your own initiative, I doubt that’s what brought you here.”

    Veriden nodded. “Yeah. Gaspard sent me.”

    Caine waited. He didn’t want to make Dora any more uncomfortable than she had to be, but on the other hand, she tended to nip and snarl when others initiated conversation. Better to let her proceed in whatever manner she chose.

    She looked Riordan in the eye. “That animal came at me because I didn’t put on the biomarkers.”

    Bannor leaned forward sharply. “What?”

    She leaned right back at him. “Are you deaf? I said I didn’t put on the markers.”

    Bannor’s posture did not change, but his color did; flushing, Rulaine’s jaw muscles clenched as he struggled to suppress a presumably blistering reply —

    “Ms. Veriden.” Riordan kept his voice professional, but sharp. “I assure you, Major Rulaine’s hearing is unimpaired. You may not be a part of my security team, but I will insist upon a modicum of respect when you interact with its members. Now: why didn’t you apply the protective biomarkers?”

    “I — I thought it would be best if one of us didn’t.”

    Caine leaned back, considered. The tone of her voice suggested that the explanation wasn’t a complete fabrication, but he could tell it wasn’t the whole truth, either. But right now, he had a concrete explanation, and that was enough to start with. “Why did you think it prudent that one of the legation remain unmarked?”

    She looked at Caine quizzically. “You really want to know?”

    “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t ask.”

    She stared at him sidelong for a moment before replying. “Okay. So, these Slaasriithi seem to have reversed the importance of machinery and biology. That makes me wonder: shouldn’t we be as careful of their sprays and markers and gifts as they should be of accepting our bugged ID badges and presents? How would we know if they’re marking us for their own purposes? And how can we be sure that they won’t include biochemicals that can be used to influence or control us?”

    Hwang was shaking his head, but Caine jumped in before he could start enumerating the many ways in which this was unlikely or impossible. “Ms. Veriden, I admire your attention to our more subtle security challenges. Be assured, the same thoughts have occurred to us.”

    She was surprised by that response but rallied rapidly and went on the offensive: “Yeah? Then why didn’t you spray your container on the ground when no one was looking?”

    Caine smiled. “Firstly, I was in the front rank. It’s not as though I had the opportunity to do so surreptitiously. But the real reason is this: have you also considered that part of our legation’s role is to function like a canary in a coal mine?”

    Dora Veriden’s mouth closed and then opened; she spent a moment waiting for a retort that never materialized. “No,” she said flatly. “I’m not even sure what you mean.” Hwang and Bannor looked equally flummoxed.

    Riordan steepled his fingers. “Ms. Veriden, it seems you’ve spent most of your life on the sharp end, so this won’t be news to you: any probe into a new area is somewhat like a recon mission. The main objective is to get in, look around, then return to report. But even if the mission is lost, even if it disappears without a trace, that’s still valuable intel. It warns the people who sent the recon team that the region is not completely safe and that any further entry should be handled with caution. And if even a few survivors make it back? More valuable still: not only can you debrief them, but scan them for pathogens, nanytes, any other contaminants or suspicious substances.”

    Riordan leaned forward. “We’re a diplomatic mission, Ms. Veriden, but we’re also performing that recon function. Part of our job is to take risks, to gather information, even if it means making ourselves vulnerable to possible ploys and bugs and viruses by which our hosts might influence us. Because when we get back home, we’ll be quarantined and examined like few humans ever have been. Consequently, our apparently uncritical trust in our hosts is not a sign of incompetence. So, in the future, when our diplomatic host makes a request of the entire legation, you will do two things.”

    Dora’s jaw set. “And those are?”

    “You will inform me if you intend not to follow that request, and you will get express permission from Ambassador Gaspard before you refuse to do so, which he will relay to me. Because he is the head of our legation, and because you are his personal employee, you alone of all persons even have that right. But you will keep us in the loop.” Because you sure as hell didn’t clear today’s noncompliance with Gaspard first, or he’d never have ordered you to come talk to me like a truant child being sent to the principle’s office. Which he surely knows is worse than any other punitive action or reprimand he could impose on you.

    Veriden’s teeth might have been clenched as she muttered, “Agreed.” She rose to leave.

    “Ms. Veriden, one other matter.”

    She turned back toward Riordan. “Yes?”

    “I’d like to combine your professional efforts with those of my team, when and if the ambassador permits it and circumstances dispose you to be willing to do so. This legation will be strongest when all its security assets are pulling in the same direction.”

    Her expression was equal parts incredulous and amused. “Are you serious?”

    “You might say I’m deadly serious, Ms. Veriden, since it is our shared responsibility to deal with matters of life and death. And frankly, I know high ability and intelligence when I see them.”

    She folded her arms. “You’ve probably figured out that I’m not much of a team player. And I don’t much like taking orders.”

    “I’ve noticed. I also observe that you do take orders even if you don’t enjoy it, and that you have skills which make you a valuable addition to any team, even if you are mostly working on your own.”

    Veriden opened the door, paused on the threshold. Her mumbled response sounded more like a confession. “I’ll think about it.”

    Once the door closed behind her, Bannor shook his head. “Caine, you’re the boss — but her? Really?”

    “She’s difficult, yes. But she’s damned good.” Bannor rubbed his chin briskly. Caine had learned what that gesture meant: the ex-Green Beanie didn’t want to be subordinate, but there was something he really wanted to say. “You’re worried about something besides her sunny disposition?”

    “Yeah,” Rulaine admitted. “Gaspard’s assistant Dieter got nervous and talkative after today’s mishap with the local wildlife. Seems this isn’t the first time that Ms. Veriden went off cowboying on her own and became an embarrassment to her employer.”

    “By ruining another operation that got in the way of her own special brand of problem-solving?”

    “Oh, that too, but I was thinking more about her political, er, forthrightness.”

    Caine nodded. “Go on.”

    “One of the reasons she never finished college or even a certificate program was because she always took the administration to task and made herself persona non grata in record time. Maintained a few vlogs — some directly, some via aliases — that are about as inflammatory as you can get before becoming a ‘person of interest’ to security agencies.”

    “Whose security agencies, specifically?”

    “Take your pick. She’s pretty much an equal-opportunity anarchist.”

    Hwang’s eyebrows went high. “She’s a genuine anarchist?”

    Rulaine waved a dismissive hand. “A figure of speech, but apt. Can’t find a single bloc or nation that she trusts or is even considers acceptable. All her sympathies are with resistance movements, underground organizations, and what activists dub ‘post-national collectives.’ And you know what that means.”

    Hwang looked from Bannor to Caine and back to Bannor. “Well, I don’t know what that means. So please add a caption.”

    Rulaine shrugged. “The megacorporations have a long history of mining anti-government organizations for support. They throw a lot of money at them: sometimes directly, sometimes through plausibly deniable proxies.”

    Hwang screwed up his face. “And do these groups really join forces with the megacorporations? They’re far more autocratic than nation-states.”

    Caine shook his head. “It’s not a direct alliance. But the megas aren’t really looking for co-combatants against ‘the tyranny of nations.’ They’re just funding grass-roots resistance to national authority.” He turned back toward Bannor. “But do you really think Dora’s been a megacorporation’s agent provocateur?”

    Rulaine shrugged. “No way to know. Dieter tells me that Gaspard has complained to DGSE that even her classified dossier is threadbare. Lots of gaps in her timeline. Lots of arrows pointing to sealed case-files and intelligence summaries.”

    Ben Hwang’s palmcomp buzzed. He glanced at it, rolled his eyes. “The Great Man has summoned the two of us. He wants that classified summary he put off.”

    “And he wants it right now, I’ll bet.”

    “No. He wants it an hour ago. When should I tell him we’ll be there?”

    “An hour ago,” Caine sighed. “Let’s go.”

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