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Raising Caine: Chapter Twenty Eight

       Last updated: Tuesday, September 22, 2015 20:48 EDT




September 2120

In various orbits; BD +02 4076 Two (“Disparity”)

    “They call the planet ‘Disparity’?” Tygg stared at Riordan, who had conveyed the information. “What the hell kind of name is that? What’s it mean?”

    “Wish I knew,” Riordan confessed, “but I don’t. Got the name from Yiithrii’ah’aash just a few minutes before we started shuffling gear around for tomorrow’s landing.”

    Keith Macmillan, hearing the exchange as he went to get another load from the cargomod, grunted. “I guess we’re going to be staying here a little longer than on Adumbratus.”

    “Why do you say?” Melissa Sleeman asked over her shoulder. She was helping — well, more like directing — Tygg as he relocated her test gear to the corvette.

    “Because they’re having us pack for a bloody camping trip, and landing us in two boats,” Macmillan answered as he disappeared around the bend.

    Which Caine knew to be only part of the reason for tomorrow’s two-vehicle planetfall. After Adumbratus, the Slaasriithi had sheepishly admitted to overestimating the avionics automation of the TOCIO shuttle and had been alarmed when neither their shift carrier nor Adumbratus’ ground station had been able to achieve a solid lascom lock to relay telemetry and meteorological data to it during the unexpectedly rough descent. This time, the Slaasriithi had urged a “buddy-system” landing. The concept was to let the far more robust and cutting-edge Wolfe-class corvette, the UCS Puller, lead the way down, relaying both its own sensor readings and any transmitted data to the shuttle following on its heels.

    Few of the legation noticed the change: they were eager to begin this visit, particularly since getting their first look at Disparity yesterday. Easing into near orbit, they had watched as, due to the rotation of their habitation module, the green and blue planet slid swiftly in from the top of their view ports and drop just as swiftly out again every forty-eight seconds. Unlike the outré appearance of Adumbratus, the second planet of BD +02 4076 conformed to the image invoked by the term “green world.”

    It was indeed the greenest planet Riordan had ever seen. Only fifty-four percent water-covered, Disparity’s seas followed the equatorial belt, dividing the planet into pole-centered landmasses. There were a few land bridges joining the two ragged collections of top and bottom continents and one seasonally-migrating ice cap. But those land bridges were apparently eroding: coastal archipelagos flanked the remaining spines of once-wide isthmuses.

    Disparity’s other unusual feature was the bright blue of its seas, which were much shallower than Earth’s oceans and were reportedly well-populated by analogs of cyan-colored algae and plankton.

    But even those colors were faint when compared to the vast verdant swathes extending away from the water on both the north and south continents. Whether light grasslands or dark forests, the rich, saturated hues indicated that the vegetation was not interspersed with many badlands or scrub-plains. With the exception of a few dramatic mountain ranges and small wind-shadow deserts that clung to their upland skirts here and there, the green of Disparity’s landmasses did not suffer interruption or preemption until it grudgingly mixed in with the tans and browns that rimmed the seasonal icecap.

    Caine reached the corvette’s portside hatchway and passed his load to Peter Wu, who glanced at the other people approaching with similar burdens. “Captain, don’t the Slaasriithi have robots?”

    “Some.” Riordan considered reminding Wu that there was no reason to revert to addressing him by rank again, but thought the better of it. The career military personnel had their own very practical instincts about such matters. In this case, while exchanges remained informal within their own circle, they stuck with the basic formalities of ranks and titles when mixing in with the civilians. Caine had spent as much time as a grass-roots insurgent as he had in true military formations — which was to say, not much of either — but accepted the wisdom of their unspoken but unanimous choice in the matter.

    Peter was still looking grimly at the approaching bucket-brigade of packages to be passed through the hatchway. “So where are the robots, sir?”

    Caine shrugged. “Far away from us. After the debacle with Buckley, they Slaasriithi have become extremely cautious about bringing any systems into contact with us. However, I am told that stops tomorrow.”

    “What happens tomorrow?”

    “We get hit with another dose of markers.”

    Trent Howarth stooped through the airlock to take the load from Peter. “Yeah, magic dust with mucho mojo, according to Major Rulaine.”

    Riordan smiled. “According to Yiithrii’ah’aash, he’ll shower us with a super-strength mix just before we start planetside. The markers will provide us with up to a week of affinity and even influence over the local wildlife. Well, the Slaasriithi biota, that is; not all of Disparity’s flora and fauna have ‘harmonized’ just yet.”

    “So why not put the magic dust on us now?” Peter passed the package to Howarth, eyed the next, larger one being carried jointly by Phil Friel and Tina Melah.

    Riordan stepped back out of their way. “Gaspard and I wanted it checked out, first. So Ben Hwang has been looking at it from the bio side, Rena Mizrahi from the medical angle, and Oleg Danysh has been pulling apart its atomic structure.” He turned to head back for another load.

    Wu sagged under the crate that Tina and Phil passed to him. “How unfortunate for them, having to work so hard.”

    Caine smiled, waved, turned the corner around which Macmillan had disappeared and which led to the shuttle and the other modules that comprised their restricted domain aboard the Slaasriithi shift-carrier.

    As he went further along the gently curving stretch of corridor, he encountered more of the legation’s sweaty geniuses-become-stevedores, mostly carrying survival packs toward the shuttle. Riordan was considering lending a hand there, as well, when his collarcom emitted a flute-and-wind-chime tone: an incoming signal from Yiithrii’ah’aash. Caine tapped the collarcom. “Hello, Ambassador. How may I help you?”

    “Caine Riordan, I trust the relocation of your supplies is proceeding well?”

    “Yes. Not without a few mishaps, of course.” But you’re not contacting me to check on our box-juggling follies. “Are our activities causing you any concern, Ambassador?”

    “No, but we are experiencing an unexplained malfunction at the berth where your shuttle is docked.”

    Caine hardly realized that his pace had slowed. “What kind of malfunction, Ambassador?”

    “Power loss. However, it is only affecting the securing clamps and the hatch seals, which have released.”

    Riordan came to a stop. “Is there a danger of separation? Do we need to evacuate the bay?”

    “That would be precipitous, Caine Riordan. I am sure that we shall have isolated the problem in a few minut –”

    The circuit cut out; the lights flickered once and died. The hallway was plunged into darkness, except for the bobbing blue collarcom lights of a few distant team members. One fell with a curse; something she’d been carrying broke with a sound like smashed crockery.



    Damn it. Caine tapped his collarcom, tried to recontact the Ambassador. The corridor’s emergency lights flashed on — amber, low, calming — and went out again, just as fast.

    Riordan began feeling his way forward in the darkness and hammered at the collarcom — which emitted an affronted chirp; the wireless power supply was off, too. Batteries only, now. He switched over to the legation channel. “Everyone, this is Captain Riordan. Get to the nearest wall so you can feel your way along. Move with all haste to whichever of our two boats are closest. Hold your collarcom over your head with your other hand, so people can see where you are.”

    “Captain Riordan.” It was Gaspard. “What is happening?”

    “I don’t know, but the Slaasriithi are as surprised as we are. I was on a channel with Ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash when –”

    “Then why should we move to our ships, before we even know what is happening?”

    You shouldn’t be doing this on an open channel, Gaspard; I don’t have the time to save face for you. “If something does go wrong, those ships are our only assured means of escape.” Riordan heard Dora Veriden mutter something about prudent action and no reason to take any chances.

    “Very well, Captain; we shall do as you say. Do you have any recommendations regar –?”

    A fierce quake sent Riordan to his knees. Shit.

    “Mon Dieu!” Gaspard’s voice was more surprised than it was panicked: better than what Caine would have anticipated three months ago. “What is happening?”

    Caine scrabbled back to his feet, double-timed forward. “Ambassador, absent other data, I would say we are under attack.”

    “Under attack? But I thought it was merely a power failure of some kind –”

    Bannor began snarling at panicked team members to stay off the line and keep moving to the closest boat. Caine hoped the legation would be able to make out his words through the cross-talk: it was unlikely that there’d be time to repeat anything. “The power outage was probably sabotage, since the emergency power went out as well. We’ve lost mobility, which makes us an easy target, particularly with the ship’s point defense systems and sensors off line. Whoever is out there shooting at us, almost certainly with a laser, lined us up and hit us as soon as their sensors confirmed that all our active systems had gone dark. Which they seemed to waiting for. The hit we felt was pretty far away from us, though. Probably up near the bow.”

    “Concur,” Bannor said sharply. And then his voice was on the secure tactical channel. “Caine, how long until you get back to Puller?”

    “I’m not heading toward Puller.” Up ahead, a male member of the legation fell, cursed, fell again, his voice getting more shrill and panicked. Caine moved in that direction.

    “Sir, with all due respect, we’re your ride. Civilians go planetside on the shuttle; security forces go on the –”

    “Bannor. It’s now twice as far for me to get to Puller. Besides, your top priority is to pull in all the people who are closest to you, lock down, and get away.”

    “Can’t. Power outage has frozen our berthing cradles in place.”

    “And you’ve got shipboard lasers at murderously close range. Keep your plants at low output: enough power to cut yourself free, but not enough to give the threat force an easy lock on you. And if you can’t release the airlock’s mating rings, blow the outer coaming with the embedded explosive bolts.”

    “Okay, sir, but not until we see you and the shuttle safely away.”

    “Don’t be insubordinate.”

    “I’m not, Captain. I’m obeying orders.”


    “Mr. Downing, sir. He thought it was possible that something like this might happen.”



    “Target damage assessment?” demanded Nezdeh.

    Tegrese’s reply sounded as though it was coming through clenched teeth. “Modest. I did not hit the presumed command and control section. Given the light debris and heavy out-gassing, I project we hit a large access tube.”

    “Our railgun projectiles?”

    “Estimating impact in eighty seconds.”

    If the Slaasriithi ship hadn’t been paralyzed by sabotage, it was doubtful that those staged composite penetrators would have hit her at all; the range was too great and the large ship’s PDF batteries too numerous and powerful. Apparently, the Slaasriithi did not have separate high power offensive lasers, and smaller, weaker point defense batteries. In keeping with the species’ decidedly non-warlike nature, they folded the two roles into a single system. The result was a significantly weaker offensive laser threat, but a significantly greater defensive intercept capability: more beams, with higher power, greater effective range, and lavish targeting arrays.

    But right now, the Slaasriithi shift-carrier’s lasers were as cold as her power plants and her fusion drive, and they would hopefully stay that way long enough for Nezdeh to finish her off.

    Something in Sehtrek’s voice told her that she might have less time to deliver that coup de grace than she wished. “Nezdeh, the first enemy ‘cannonball’ has risen above the planetary horizon.”

    Right on time. She waved away the distance-hazed close-up of the Slaasriithi ship in the holosphere: it disappeared. “Tactical navplot,” she ordered the computer.

    The ship’s outline was replaced by a three dimensional overview of nearby space, where a threat-coded orange ball was rising over the rim of the blue planetary sphere. On the other side of the sphere, a larger orange spindle — the stricken enemy shift-carrier — floated haplessly. As she watched, several orange pinpricks in the vicinity of approaching orange ball flickered into existence, pulsing. “Microsensor phased array?” she asked.

    “Correct,” Sehtrek replied. “As small and undetectable as our own. They are almost certainly relying upon broadcast power from the planet’s many orbital solar collectors. I detect seven active sensors. They are striving for target lock.”

    “That is their only reason for illuminating them,” Nezdeh muttered, assessing the distribution of the enemy sensors and the respectable rate at which the orange ball was approaching.

    Tegrese’s voice was tense, eager. “Shall I target their sensors?”

    Nezdeh shook her head sharply. “No.” Tegrese, at this moment you are a fool asking to play a fool’s game. “We haven’t the time to spare. Besides, we are seeing only the first tier of their detection assets. They doubtless have many replacements seeded in various orbital positions, still floating inert. Resume firing upon the Slaasriithi ship as soon as you have corrected your locational lock.”

    “Which lock, Nezdeh? The one guiding our laser strikes against the bow, or for the rail gun lock upon the stern?”



    “Correct both, but the stern is the most critical. If we can cripple its main power plant before our saboteur’s work is undone, we can easily destroy the target, despite the size difference.” Which was why Lurker had a self-guiding tactical nuclear missile in its recessed bay; once targeting was assured and either the Slaasriithi’s PDF batteries were inert or the flight time was brief, that single hammer blow would finish the job. But the Slaasriithi’s present power loss would not be permanent, and the range was still too great. And since we have but one sure way to kill our foe…”Ulpreln, both fusion and plasma drives to full on my mark. Zurur, send word to the rest of the crew to secure themselves for sustained four gee thrust.” She saw Ulpreln’s head start to turn. “When we activated our own dispersed array of microsensors, they had an indefinite warning, at best. But when we fired, we revealed our precise coordinates. There is no longer any advantage to hiding among the debris from the asteroid collision we caused. Tegrese, illuminate all active sensors. Ulpreln, plot the most direct course toward the target and accelerate to full.”

    Ulpreln nodded, turned to his console — and the universe slammed Nezdeh back into her acceleration couch.

    In the viewscreen, the last few widely spaced rocks drifting between Red Lurker and her target rushed past them. Nezdeh was sorry to see them disappear astern. The asteroids had been helpful, obscuring companions ever since the Arbitrage and her Ktoran tug had edged in toward the Spinward Trojan point after finishing a hasty and incomplete refueling. They had counter-boosted into the midst of the drifting rocks using a retrograde approach effected solely by the Aboriginal ship’s magnetically-accelerated plasma thrusters, thereby minimizing all chances of detection.

    Once hidden, Brenlor had exhibited admirable patience as they determined their best ambush point and observed what little they could from that extreme distance. He even accepted that his role in the coming attack would be to remain hidden with the Arbitrage and the tug. This had happily obviated any need to underscore that Brenlor’s personal mastery was in personal, not ship-to-ship combat. As one of the least patient of the young Evolved in his House, he had not possessed the precision and cool calculation that made for excellent ship captains. Fortunately, other matters had precluded his participation in the strike. Preserving his geneline, the closest to the progenitorial core of House Perekmeres, was first among these, followed closely by maintaining the reign of terror he had established over the Aboriginals aboard the Arbitrage. Given its size, the human ship had to remain hidden and distant from the engagement since, along with the tug, it was their only means of exiting the system, whatever might transpire.

    Nezdeh’s more difficult, and tedious, problem had been to make a sufficiently stealthy and close approach to the target zone. Coasting, running off minimum batteries, and often tarrying in the shadow of one or more of the rocky fragments of the asteroid collision they had caused, Nezdeh approached their ambush point on a retrograde vector, sending a cluster of disposable microsensors on ahead. Functioning as a passive phased array, they immediately detected the orbiting, sphere-like vehicles the Ktor had observed upon arriving in the system. The larger ones, which they dubbed cannonballs due to their occasional bursts of astounding five point five gee acceleration, were evidently the most sophisticated of the objects and also the most likely to be defense systems. They changed their telemetry without any regular period: in short, no firing solution calculated from their orbital path remained viable for more than seven or eight hours.

    The planet’s scores of smaller spheres were, presumably communications and sensor platforms. Although the cannonballs were the greatest direct threat, these smaller spheres, as well as any undetectable devices comprising a phased array, commanded Nezdeh’s attention: would they scan the new, slowly diffusing spray of gargantuan boulders behind which Lurker was approaching?

    But the orbital array’s passive sensor results apparently did not alarm either its live or expert system controllers: no active scan was initiated. The collision Red Lurker had engineered resembled the sequelae of a natural event, and since none of the ejecta was heading directly toward the planet, its denizens had evidently concluded that it was unnecessary to inspect the debris more closely. Besides, in order to do so, they would have had to illuminate and thereby reveal the active sensors kept in the region for detecting enemy craft. Reassured by the Slaasriithis’ complacency, Red Lurker concluded her approach, drifting along behind the largest rock chunk that would pass within sixty thousand kilometers of the planet.

    Tegrese’s voice roused Nezdeh out of the momentary reverie that had arisen even as she continued to assess the data streams floating next to the holographic navplot. “New firing solutions are ready, Nezdeh. Using both phased array and on-board sensors, confidence of laser solution is absolute. Rail gun targeting confidence is ninety-five percent, with mean point of impact variance of up to ten meters.”

    “Continue to refine rail gun targeting. Sehtrek, how long before the cannonballs are in range, presuming they are capable of six gee?”

    “Uncertain. At their current rate of acceleration, the first one will be in our laser’s effective range in four minutes. Our railgun –”

    “The rail gun is useless against the cannonballs under these conditions. The flight time of our projectiles make hits improbable until the enemy craft are much closer. Any sign of the other cannonballs?”

    “None have appeared above the planetary horizon yet, although we conjectured that they would be profiling themselves against open space by now.”

    Nezdeh looked in the holotank, read the data. “And the one approaching us is only accelerating at four gees.” She shook her head. “Unpromising. If they were all closing at six gees, we would know they are not taking the time to measure our actions. Instead, the lead cannonball has slowed itself so that the others can accelerate and catch up while it observes us.” She drew in breath against the push of Lurker’s acceleration. “We must expect that the last two targets will come over the horizon together.” So much for defeating an amateurish enemy in detail. The lead cannonball is their sacrifice: they will use it to see how we fight, our capabilities, and our limits. And the latter two will rush in to take advantage of that knowledge by attempting to overwhelm our defenses. Ruthlessly efficient, for an ostensibly nonviolent species.

    Tegrese’s voice was tight with resisting the four-gee compression. “First flight of rail gun munitions are about to hit their shift-carrier. Targeting update: laser mean point of impact certain to the limits of sensor accuracy. Confidence of new rail gun firing solution: ninety-eight percent with seven meter MPI variance. Am I to keep all lasers on the primary target?”

    Nezdeh nodded. “We have several minutes before the first cannonball can threaten us.” I think. “We must keep the Slaasriithi vessel powerless. To do that, we must concentrate our fire upon her.” Unfortunately, at this range, our lasers lack the coherence to inflict maximum damage, and if she manages to change course, our rail gun may miss. “We shall cripple her now so that we may kill her later.”

    “While hoping that the cannonballs don’t kill us in the meantime,” Tegrese murmured.

    “True,” replied Nezdeh. “Now: fire all.”

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