Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Raising Caine: Chapter Thirty

       Last updated: Tuesday, September 29, 2015 06:56 EDT



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

    Nezdeh stared at the holotank and the view screens and reflected how aptly the changes of the last twenty seconds illustrated the tired Progenitor axiom, Good fortune arrives in bits and pieces, but bad luck comes all at once.

    Moments after the target had finally been dealt a solid blow — two of her fuel tanks destroyed and her primary rotational armature coming apart in a roiling litter of modules and debris — the last two Slaasriithi cannonballs emerged from behind the planet. As they did, the third, closer cannonball commenced a six gee counterboost, slowing it at the same moment that Sehtrek reported it was now targeting Lurker with active sensors. Nezdeh ordered Tegrese to bring the starboard laser blisters to bear upon the enemy craft. It was not yet at optimal range, but there was nothing to be lost by trying to destroy or disable it, particularly before it initiated its own attacks.

    But then Sehtrek called Nezdeh’s attention to two new drive signatures that had sprung into existence near the Slaasriithi hull: smaller vessels, drawing rapidly away from her. One staggered through hail of debris, and, trailing hydrogen, dove straight into the planet’s gravity well. The other seemed to emerge straight out of the debris cloud, accelerating rapidly. Two seconds later, it illuminated active sensors and acquired target lock with extraordinary speed. The engine signatures of both craft were primitive — first generation magnetically-accelerated heavy-plasma thrusters — and the radar and lidar emissions were crude. So: these were not Slaasriithi craft, clearly. Aboriginal, therefore. But the one meant to fight and the other meant to make planetfall, both of which complicated her mission.

    “Nezdeh, I await your orders,” Tegrese said urgently.

    “I am waiting — for that.” Nezdeh pointed in the holotank; the orange delta signifying the human warship spat out a similarly colored flicker at Red Lurker. “The humans have launched a missile. No, correction: given its size and complexity, it is a drone.”

    “It is not homing.”

    “It does not need to, not yet. We have an active sensor lock on the Slaasriithi ship, so they have simply established a reciprocal lock along our emission. We are doing the drone’s work for it. And as for the Aboriginals’ other weapons –”

    Red Lurker shuddered. Sehtrek looked up. “Lasers. Two hits. Low power beams, visible wavelength. Highly diffused at this range.”

    Tegrese had apparently forgotten she was speaking to a Srina. “What are you waiting for, Nezdeh? They could destroy –!”

    Nezdeh turned, fixed her with a stare, regretted taking the seconds to deal with Tegrese. But the loss of some additional paint and laser-ablative layering was nothing compared to losing even one iota of dominion. “The Aboriginals cannot destroy us with their laser at this range. Which you would know if you had the proper mastery of your station: we have exhaustive data on their technology. Or had you forgotten that, along with your deference?”

    Tegrese’s eyes widened, then tightened and grew tense crow’s-feet at their corners, but finally, her gaze lowered. “My apologies for both transgressions, Srina Perekmeres.”

    “I shall forgive them both, this one time. Now: adjust rail gun targeting to correct mean point of impact to the engines on the Slaasriithi shift cruiser.”

    Sehtrek leaned closely over his read-outs. “Nezdeh, the forward sections of the Slaasriithi craft are beginning to receive power again. She has just illuminated active sensors.”

    Keeping the tactical initiative was looking ever-more questionable. “Portside lasers are to target the Aboriginal corvette. Commence fire as soon as you have an eighty percent confidence solution.”

    “And their drone?”

    “Shift one of our starboard laser blisters to PDF mode and commence streaming interception fire immediately. Inform me when it is neutralized.”

    Tegrese’s voice was careful. “I mean no disrespect, but I must confirm: do you intend to dedicate only two starboard laser blisters to the closest cannonball?”

    “Yes. Regaining control of this engagement means reducing the number of opposing threats. The human corvette will be the easiest to eliminate, and in so doing, we also complete part of our mission. We will then be able to re-concentrate on the more difficult targets.”

    “And the human shuttle?”

    Nezdeh resisted the urge to close her eyes in frustration. “The debris, range, and other threats are too great for us to engage it now.”

    “We could use our own missiles to –”

    “No: we must launch a full spread of missiles at the Slaasriithi before she is able to reemploy her own lasers in the point-defense fire mode. Once her PDF systems are active, we will be as powerless to damage her as the humans are powerless to damage us.” She glanced at the lead cannonball; it still had not fired. Which bothered her. “Commence all attacks,” she ordered.



    As soon as the shuttle’s rapid acceleration down toward Disparity settled into a consistent trajectory, Caine unbuckled and struggled forward against the two gees to reach the bridge’s iris valve. He triggered it, pushed into one of the two support seats, nodded to Raskolnikov and Qin, who spared one precious second to nod back at him. “I understand there was gunfire back in the rear airlock, Captain.”

    “There was. And three bodies.”

    “Do you have any idea what happened?

    “Not yet,” Riordan admitted as he strapped into his new seat. “Except that I don’t believe the set up.”

    “The set up?” Qin echoed.

    “The way the bodies are set up to make it appear as if they all killed each other. It looks plausible enough forensically, but I don’t buy the scenario. It’s extremely rare that everyone in a gunfight winds up dead. But we’ll figure that out later. If we get the chance.”

    Raskolnikov turned a rueful smile back at him. “So you have seen top side of our lifting surface?”

    Riordan nodded. “Took some hits from that debris you dodged.”

    “Not me. That was Lieutenant Qin. She got us out of that mess.”

    “Not entirely,” Qin grumbled. “My apologies, Commander Raskolnikov. I am afraid I have made your job much harder.”

    “This?” Raskolnikov smiled broadly as he tilted his head at the pockmarked portside “wing” of the shuttle. Caine winced: it was one of those “so we die? so what?” smiles that he had seen on the faces of too many fatalistic Russians over the past two years. “This is not so bad,” Raskolnikov asserted. “We will keep nose up and minimize atmospheric heating on damaged area. You will see: all shall be well.”

    And if it isn’t, who’ll be left to call you a bullshitter? But what Caine said was: “How soon before the ride gets rough?”

    “Soon, Captain. You should return to seat.”

    Caine shook his head. “I need the radio for a minute.”

    Both pilots shrugged, scanned their mostly-green system monitors, began checking for ground beacons or automated telemetry feeds guiding them toward approach paths: neither one was showing up on their instruments.

    Caine snagged a thin-line headset, activated a secure channel to Puller, scanned the black vault above them. Well away from the Slaasriithi ship, the corvette’s twin, blue-white thrusters brightened — just as its hull seemed to flare. One engine went dark and Puller started to lose way, veering closer to the planet. “Bannor!”

    A moment of paralyzing silence was supplanted by static and then an open channel. “Caine? Glad to hear you guys are okay. Heading planetside?”

    “Screw the small talk. What the hell are you doing?”

    “Helping our hosts, sir.”

    “Damn it; you are to go dark, break contact, and run like hell.”

    “Sir, with all due respect, mounting a covering attack was within my prerogatives. It ensures that they don’t shoot at you. A logical extension of Mr. Downing’s orders, sir.”

    You god-damned barracks-house lawyer. “We’ll argue that some other time. For now, you’ve taken your best shot and given them something to shoot at until Yiithrii’ah’aash got his ship running again. Now, get Puller and your crew out of that battlespace. You’ve already lost one thruster –”



    “That’s coming back on line. They didn’t tag us too hard. And now that the Slaasriithi ship is powering up again –”

    “Major, before her power comes back, she could take another burst of rail gun penetrators to her power plants or engine. Or bridge. And then you’d be stuck facing the attacker on your own.” Riordan dropped his voice. “Bannor, someone has got to live to report this. This shuttle is going down hard and I don’t know how many — if any — of us are going to walk away from it. And remember: this is happening just one system away from the Slaasriithi homeworld.

    Bannor’s reply was not immediate. “Sir, are you thinking that this might be a prelude to a general attack?”

    “No. If it was, our first warning would have been an enemy battle cruiser showing up and converting us all into subatomic particles. But it’s equally alarming that someone is playing this kind of hard ball deep inside Slaasriithi space for a lesser reason. The Custodians have to be informed, as well as both our government and that of our hosts. And Puller is the only hardened target on this shooting range who just might get out in one piece. You’re small enough and fast enough to hide and survive to tell the tale. So get going. Now.”

    “But Downing said –”

    “Major Rulaine, you’ve discharged Downing’s orders. Now you’re taking mine. Log it as my responsibility, and contest the order later, if you like, but right now, you go!”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Caine had never heard Bannor sound glum before. High overhead, the darkened thruster of the Puller flickered back into life as the haze of the atmosphere began increasing, diffusing the twin pinpricks of the corvette’s drives. Within the space of two heartbeats, they vanished.

    For the first time since the attack had begun, Riordan had a scant moment to pull back from immediate events and consider the bigger picture. Whoever was behind this attack had infiltrated one or more saboteurs into the legation within twenty-four hours of its being announced, and had sent an assault force unthinkably far into Slaasriithi space. The enemy was, by any conceivable measure, incredibly resourceful, bold, and dangerous.

    Riordan found he was still looking at the spot of thickening sky where Puller had disappeared. I hope they make it. But if they don’t — Riordan activated the preset comm link for the Slaasriithi ship, asked over his shoulder: “Is the channel for Ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash’s ship secure?”

    “Scrambled and encrypted,” Raskolnikov confirmed. “Your two minutes are up, Captain. Things become interesting, now.”

    “Acknowledged,” Riordan replied, activating the link and listening for a reply. As he waited, he glanced out the cockpit.

    They had descended far enough that Disparity’s planetary curve had leveled out into a horizon line. The clouds were coming up at them, along with stratified drifts of faint green dust. Yiithrii’ah’aash had mentioned atmospheric spore layers, many of which soaked up and reflected UV, thereby adding to the planet’s surreal green-blue appearance. Auroras flickered high above: BD +02 4076, being at the approximate peak of its nine-year solar activity cycle, was emitting a growing wave of solar particles. Which meant sensor degradation and a better chance for Puller to get away. Conversely, it portended radio problems, possibly an impending blackout —

    The channel opened to Yiithrii’ah’aash’s ship; it sounded like a stone-cutter’s saw accompanied by a chorus of banshees being boiled in oil. “Caine Riordan?”

    “Yes, Ambassador. Auroras are degrading our communications, I think.”

    “They are. Have you made planetfall? I do not have enough sensor assets available to track your progress.”

    “Negative, Ambassador. We are approaching the highest cloud layers. Since this may be our last communication until the solar activity fades, I wanted to confer on a course of action.”

    “I agree. In order to ensure your survival on the planet, I recommend –”

    “I’m sorry to interrupt, Ambassador, but frankly, I’m more concerned about your survival.”

    “That is welcome, Caine Riordan, but we must first see to your safety. It is our responsibility that such dangers have befallen you.”

    “Ambassador, with all due respect, that cannot be the first priority for either one of us. We have to ensure that this incursion on your space, and the attempted assassination of the entire legation, is reported with all possible speed. So, first things first: is your ship still capable of making shift?”

    “Caine — Captain Riordan: we will not leave you behind. We must exert all efforts to –”

    “Ambassador, we’re running out of time. Given that you are arguing against shifting, I deduce that you are still capable of doing so. And you must. As quickly as possible.”

    “We have offensive systems aboard our ship which are perfectly capable of –”

    “Ambassador, your ship only has dual purpose lasers that fulfill both offensive and point defense requirements, correct?”

    “Correct.” The reply was reluctant.

    “So, they don’t have the distance or power of purely offensive systems. And from what I can see, your ship does not have a spinal main weapon, does it?”

    “It does not.”

    “Then it would be reckless for you to stay and fight. You’ve already suffered significant damage. The next hit could destroy your ability to shift. On the other hand, if you preaccelerate immediately, you will be sure to shift, report, and bring back a rescue mission.”

    The two second pause seemed to last two minutes. “Your logic is unassailable. I shall undertake actions that allow us to shift more promptly than usual.” A new form of static started encroaching on the channel: it was like bagpipes playing through a thickening blanket of white noise.

    “Ambassador, your signal is degrading.”

    “That is the planetary defense system,” Yiithrii’ah’aash explained. “Since your ship has crossed the security threshold of the planet without being expressly cleared to do so, the defense system has begun to jam all signals.”

    “You mean, all legation signals?”

    “No: all signals. When the planetary defense system perceives an unauthorized entry, it initiates what you would call a communications ‘lock down.’ This way, reconnaissance landings cannot relay any intelligence or targeting data to enemies in orbit or beyond.” Yiithrii’ah’aash’s words were beginning to bleed into each other as the signal continued to erode.

    “Ambassador, what special methods are you employing to achieve shift more rapidly than usual?”

    “We will make for this system’s automated port facilities.”

    “They are not here, near Disparity?”

    “No. They are in the leading Trojan point of the first orbit. We have a solar array there, constantly fabricating anti-matter.”

    Yes, but if the enemy has learned about it…”Do you have sufficient anti-matter for a shift?”

    “Yes, although not enough to shift with minimal preacceleration. We would require an extra three days of preacceleration to make up for the partial insufficiency of anti-matter.”

    “Then that’s what you must do.”

    “Caine Riordan, that would delay our return by two additional days. And if these attackers attempt to follow you planetside, that could mean the difference between life and death.”

    “It could mean life or death for a lot more people, humans and Slaasriithi alike, if you don’t bypass the automated station. If you travel there, you could discover that the enemy has more ships in system, possibly waiting to ambush you as you approach the facility. And if they seize its anti-matter reserves, they will be able to swiftly refuel whatever ship brought them here, and undertake whatever energy-expensive operations they need to overcome this planet’s defenses. And then exterminate us.” Riordan paused; the channel was degrading even more rapidly. “There’s only one way you can prevent that.”


    “I presume that your communication net allows you to interface directly with the refueling station’s controls?”

    “It does.”

    Caine drew a deep breath. “Then here is what you have to do.”

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image