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Raising Caine: Chapter Thirty Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 20:16 EDT



    Southern extents of the Third Silver Tower; BD +02 4076 Two (“Disparity”)

    The battered TOCIO shuttle started down through the bank of clouds that threatened to obscure the coastal river valley toward which they had been descending. The cottony whiteness that swallowed them quickly became an ugly grey. “Heavy weather,” Raskolnikov muttered.

    Caine gripped the edge of his seat as a cross current buffeted them, caught a glimpse of the instrument board. Three new orange lights had appeared among the ones monitoring the port side fuselage. “Have we lost airframe integrity?”

    “Not yet,” Qin Lijuan said calmly. “However, stress alerts are increasing. No matter how high I keep the nose, those port-side holes are catching air, increasing drag. It does not help that some of the largest debris went in the variable-thruster intake.”

    “Hard to keep her flying straight?”

    “Yes, but the larger problem is that we are no longer capable of making a vertical landing. Also, the heat shielding there is no longer uniform. Even though the damage is on the dorsal surface, and even though we leveled out into a slow reentry slalom once we descended through the thirty kilometer mark, there is no way to stop the drag from widening the breaches.”

    “My esteemed colleague is saying that our shuttle wants to shake apart and she is not letting it do so.” Raskolnikov punctuated his sardonic synopsis with a wide grin.

    Caine mustered a smile. “Thanks: I got that. Any idea how far down this cloud cover goes?”

    Raskolnikov, all business again, shook his head. “No. It may go right down — what is your expression? — to the deck. Variable wave sensing suggests it begins to thin out at eight-hundred meters, but beyond that, who knows? It might be fog, mist, mixed, raining, or clear.”

    “Eight hundred meters?” Caine’s stomach tightened and descended. “That doesn’t give you a lot of time to find a good landing zone.”

    “You are right, Captain: it does not. But the river beneath us had many straight stretches.”

    “So: a water landing.”

    Raskolnikov grinned that crazy grin again. “If we are lucky. Now, Captain, you must return to seat.” He paused. “One at midsection, please.”

    Caine nodded. “I’ll make sure the others get out. I’ve memorized the emergency exits, in case the hatches are jammed.”

    “Horosho,” Raskolnikov smiled. He glanced over at Qin Lijuan. “Perhaps I shall take it from here, yes?”

    Egoless, Lijuan ceded him the controls. Nodding to the two of them, Caine cycled through the iris valve and moved quickly to the midsection of the craft.

    He passed Ben Hwang, who opened his mouth to speak —

    Caine shook his head, got into a couch across the aisle from Gaspard, who seemed to be concentrating on a deep-breathing exercise, his eyes closed.

    As the three jammed windows in the passenger section darkened even more and rain began hammering down on the shuttle, Caine finished belting in — and started when Gaspard’s voice announced, so calm as to be eerie: “For the record, Captain Riordan, I consider this crisis to be the province of security management. I shall not gainsay your orders.”

    Caine glanced over at Gaspard. Other than his reclosing lips, the ambassador was completely motionless, as if in a meditative state. “Thank you, Ambassador.” If Gaspard responded, Caine missed it.

    His collarcom buzzed. “Riordan here.”

    “Captain, this is Qin. You are strapped in?”


    “Good. Please push your seat’s paging button.” Riordan did. “I am activating your seat’s data link. Please put on the viewing monocle you will find in the seat pouch.” Riordan had the small video-display device settled over his ear and in front of his left eye before she had finished the sentence. The small eyepiece flickered, then showed him the ground rushing up swiftly: a jungle cut in two by a meandering ribbon of rain-speckled river. “We will make our final descent soon.”

    But in the meantime, you’re trying to preemptively kill me with terror? But Caine understood the real reason the pilots were showing him the view from the nose of the shuttle: “I’ll call out the steps back here.”

    “And keep watch for the best way to exit the shuttle. If we are fortunate, there will be an option other than the dorsal hatch.”

    “Understood. There are three window covers jammed half-open back here. Can you unfreeze them?”

    “We tried several times when we undocked. We have tried at least once a minute since then. We suspect that the sabotage created a power surge which disabled those circuits. However, those windows would only shatter if hit directly. I advise you not to worry about them.” Which was a nice way of saying: if that glass breaks, it will be the very least of your problems. “We will be down within the minute. Please prepare the passengers.”

    In the data monocle, the river rose closer; in the distance, it seemed to narrow and bend. “Everyone,” Riordan said loudly. “We are making a water landing.”

    “What?” shrieked Nasr. Ben Hwang released a long shuddering sigh — just before the two-toned crash landing alert started blaring.

    Caine raised his voice over it. “This vehicle’s tilt-thrusters are disabled, so we are landing runway-style. But we haven’t seen any airfields or received any communications from the ground. Fortunately, we’ve got the best pilots in the business up in the cockpit and they’ve found a good stretch of river to put down on.”

    “Are there rafts? Are there life-pre –?”

    “You’ll find flotation packs under your seat. They clip on to your duty suits’ shoulder clasps and will auto-deploy the moment you hit water. Rafts will too.” I hope. In his left eye, the river loomed large, and then suddenly glistened: the shuttle had passed beyond the shadowing storm clouds. Faint stretches of foggy silt and rocks shone up through the translucent water. This river was shallow: maybe too shallow. The camera crept closer to the rippling water, the strange foliage speeding past on either bank. “Everyone: crash positions. I will count us down. Five meters, four, three –”

    Caine didn’t see the long mass of subsurface rock at first; just the rapidly lapping wavelets it threw up as the current skimmed over its flat expanse. His mouth was open to shout a warning to Raskolnikov —

    Who obviously saw it. The shuttle banked quickly to the left, rose up to hop over the rock — and inadvertently dipped the leading corner of its left wing into the river.

    The sudden drag pulled the shuttle sharply to port. The engines roared as Raskolnikov fought its nose back to centerline, powering it upward. But as the wing pulled out of the water, Caine felt a transverse shiver run from the left side of the fuselage and pass under his seat. He glanced out his half-sealed window in time to see the pock-marked section of the wing buckle and then shred.

    Freed of that drag, the shuttle suddenly pulled in the direction of the intact starboard wing, even as it jerked down toward the water. The starboard thruster screamed again; Raskolnikov had pulsed it to re-center the nose. Which dropped swiftly as soon as he eased off the thrust: the vehicle’s ability to glide was wholly gone. Caine had a split-second monocle view of the rushing water leaping up at him —

    The impact both threw him forward against the straps and the couch-back in front of him. And then — nothing: a surreal moment as the craft skipped off the river’s surface like a stone. The fiber-optic bow camera sent a static-littered image of the nose rising, then falling again —

    Toward a long, flat wave-crested rock.

    The second impact was so hard that Caine’s teeth snapped together painfully. At the same instant, his whole abdomen spasmed, his viscera jumping forward against his stomach muscles. Several shrieks cut through sounds of shearing metal, splintering composites, shattering glass — all of which was loudest from the bridge and the belly of the shuttle.

    Which was still skipping forward along the river, yawing as it went. Sharp jolts hammered up through Caine’s body, as if he was riding a sled down jagged marble stairs. There was a final dull thump — and then, stillness.

    “Survival packs out; filter masks on!” Caine shouted. He struggled free of the straps and stepped down into rising water. Shit. “By names; sound off!”

    Voices shouted back: “Hwang!” “Betul!” “Gaspard!” “Xue!” “Veriden!” “Hirano!” “Eid!” “Macmillan!” “Salunke!”

    The still intact window showed water lapping along the half-amputated portside lifting surface. The remains of the wing were canted slightly backward: the tail section was in deeper water. Xue splashed forward, glanced at the emergency airlock door just aft of the bridge’s now severely-deformed iris valve. Caine nodded: “Go.”

    Macmillan, the furthest in the back, calmly announced, “Smoke coming out of the engineering spaces, Captain.”

    Caine, who was helping Gaspard to yank his survival pack out of the cubby under his acceleration couch, paused, sniffed. “That’s not a fire. That’s steam.”

    “Not so bad then.” Eid smiled hopefully through chattering teeth.

    “No: it’s bad,” Dora corrected. “This shuttle is a long range model. That means a small nuke plant for powering the MAP thrusters.”

    Hirano frowned. “But if there is no leak, then –”

    Caine gently pushed her toward the forward airlock Xue had opened; the air pushing in was pungent, thick. “Ms. Hirano, we’re not worried about radiation. If the plant is hot and immersed in water, the temperature differential could cause it to shatter. Violently.”

    Hirano Mizuki’s eyes were wide and her gait swift as she went through the forward exit. Ben Hwang, favoring his right side, approached. “Any word from the bridge?”

    Caine met his eyes. “I don’t think there is any bridge. Not anymore.” He glanced at the iris-valve. Something had struck the other side hard enough to buckle the overlapping plates in toward the passenger compartment.

    Hwang nodded and followed after Hirano.

    Macmillan was the last out, carrying two extra packs. “Rations,” he explained. “I could go back to the locker and –”

    Looking over the IRIS agent’s shoulder, Riordan saw that the water was waist deep around the shivered door into the aft compartment, and wisps of steam were rising up from it. “No time for that. And you’d parboil yourself.” Caine bringing up the rear, they hurried out the exit.

    It was a short jump down into shallows sloping up toward a marshy bank. Which was actually part of a riverhead: a stream meandered out of the frond-and-tube-weed fen in which the shuttle had buried its nose.

    Or rather, what was left of its nose. The entire starboard side of the cockpit was in shreds, much of it missing. The port side had been squashed, accordioned up and back against the passenger compartment.

    Macmillan put a hand on Caine’s shoulder. “We were lucky to get out. Let’s not stick around to get blown up.”

    Nodding, he followed Macmillan and the others up the narrow bank and into the tangle of alien vegetation that it was tempting, but altogether wrong, to call a jungle.



    The column of steam that rose up from the shuttle became thickest approximately thirty minutes after they had put a kilometer between themselves and the wreck. An hour after that, it had shrunk back to its original size. A further thirty minutes reduced it to a wispy curlicue.

    Caine turned off his collarcom, gestured for the others to do the same. There was no detectable signal other than the band-spanning white noise, so calling for help was pointless. Besides, preserving the remaining battery power meant retaining the ability to communicate with each other in emergencies, albeit over very short ranges.

    “So now what do we do?” asked Nasr Eid.

    Riordan stared directly at Nasr. “Now, we protect ourselves and take a fast inventory of our gear.”

    As the rest of the group started opening their packs, Hirano Mizuki stared around at the foliage. “Protect ourselves? From what?”

    Riordan’s unvoiced reaction — Good grief: civilians! — brought him to a startled mental halt: what had happened to his self-identity as a “civilian”? He wasn’t sure where it had fallen away — and it hadn’t fully. He wasn’t enamored of imposing military discipline or having it imposed upon him. But then again, discipline and its trappings — ranks, protocols, traditions — did not define the difference between a soldier and a civilian. The difference was in outlook. Brilliant civilian researcher Hirano Mizuki stared into the shadowy reaches of alien underbrush and saw no reason for caution. Caine, on the other hand, saw an unguarded perimeter in unknown terrain with no one assigned to patrol or watch it.

    Riordan smiled gently at Mizuki. “Ms. Hirano, I hope that there is nothing to fear in this brave new world. And we shall not go looking for any trouble while we’re here. But until we know we are safe, we will take precautions to deal with trouble, should it come looking for us. Am I clear?”



    Hirano nodded, opened her pack, started checking its contents. Caine popped open his own, mostly for the theater of it: always obey your own orders.

    Arguably they were already wearing their most important piece of gear: multipurpose, reconfigurable duty suits. But each pack contained important enhancements for it: a light raingear attachment, as well as a half parka with a reflective liner. There was a pony tank (he’d have preferred the Commonwealth tank/rebreather combo), as well as a short duration EVA/SCUBA shell that integrated with the exterior of the duty suit. The comestibles satchel contained four days of fifteen-hundred-kilocalorie rations and supplements, three liters of water, and a dubiously diminutive solar still that doubled as a mess kit. The signaling kit included a flasher, a flare, transponder, dye, glow sticks, and various fire-starting options. The medkit was a densely-stuffed cornucopia that, once opened, could not be repacked by mere mortals.

    Consigned to the bottom of the pack were both its most and least useful components. The most useful was the lightweight but very robust multitool: knife, wire cutter, saw, screwdriver, vise; you name it. The least useful was its larger cousin, the so-called combo pioneer tool. Ostensibly combining the features of a mountaineer’s pick, hammer, a sleeve-over hatchet head, attachable shovel blade, and handle extender, it managed to succeed at none of its designated roles, but instead, failed spectacularly at all of them. Furthermore, despite its much bally-hooed nano-bonded composite carbon-fiber construction, it had the strength and durability of an origami butterfly.

    Caine’s pack did not contain a firearm, but that was no surprise: only the Commonwealth and Federation packs included one in every kit. One in three of the TOCIO kits versions provided a break-down rifle which was designed so that both the barrel and receiver fit inside its hollow stock. Included in lieu of the combo pioneer tool, the weapon was chambered for the venerable — not to say decrepit or feeble — nine millimeter parabellum cartridge. A wonderful round in its day, but that “day” had begun in the early twentieth century and had ended by the middle of the next. But evidently, all that overstocked ammunition still had to be used somewhere, and each TOCIO survival rifle provided one such venue of terminal consumption, at a rate of forty rounds per weapon.

    All in all, the survival pack contained about fifteen kilograms of gear and four more of garments and footwear, all of it so lightweight and flimsy that it was a wonder any of it held together long enough to be useful. Assuming that it did.

    Everyone reported that their kits were complete. Four of the ten had the nine millimeter break-down rifles. So, slightly better than average. Caine glanced in the direction of the wreck. The last wisps of steam had disappeared.

    He rose. “Okay, everyone, we’re heading back to the shuttle. Not because we’re expecting a rescue to team to find us there,” Caine added, seeing the hopeful look in Eid’s eyes, “but to see if it’s safe to salvage more gear. After that, we’ll set a watch and survey our surroundings.”

    “Surveying the unknown always entails risk.” They were the first words Gaspard had uttered since the crash.

    “That’s true, Ambassador, but total ignorance is an even greater risk. The only thing Yiithrii’ah’aash told us about Disparity is that our filter masks are the only environmental protection we need. We don’t know the length of day, the mean temperatures at this latitude and in this season, or what kind of wildlife we might encounter. However, since we needed markers for this world, it’s a safe bet that some of the wildlife might be unfriendly.

    “So, first rule: when we travel, we travel in a secure formation. And everyone is going to take a turn walking point. With two exceptions: Mr. Gaspard and Dr. Hwang.”

    Hwang was already glaring at Caine when Gaspard looked up slowly. “It is not right that I do not share in the risk, Captain.”

    Damn it, I could come to like you. “Mr. Gaspard, you are ambassador plenipotentiary to the Slaasriithi. You are the package that must be delivered to them, and then back home, safely. That is my primary mission. I will not jeopardize it by putting you on guard duty. And Ben, before you torque up, let me ask you a question: how’s your gut feel?”

    Ben’s glare faltered. “It’s — I’m fine.”

    “Ben, you are a noble liar. But a liar just the same. You took that landing hard. Judging from the way you’re moving, you may have sustained some internal injuries from rapid deceleration. Or are you saying that’s impossible?”

    “I — I cannot tell. But –”

    “No buts, Ben. Lieutenant Xue, given your EMT and physician’s assistant certification, you are now the party medic. You will stay by Dr. Hwang’s side for the next twenty-four hours. Should our stoic Nobel laureate experience trauma symptoms that he tries to hide from us, you are to report them to me immediately. Mr. Gaspard, you will remain with them as well, and the three of you will travel at the center of our formation.

    “In layman’s terms, we will be traveling in a delta formation. The three persons tasked to keep watch will be armed and occupy the points of a moving triangle. The foot of the triangle will actually be out to our front. Our rearguard occupies the single point behind us. The fourth rifle will be carried by one of the persons at the center of the group. Now, who wants to stand the first patrol?”

    Keith pointedly did not take this as a cue to step forward. Good: if you’re too eager to help me, that would blow your cover. “Okay; no volunteers, then. First security detail will be Ms. Salunke on right point, Mr. Macmillan on left point, and Ms. Veriden on rearguard.” Riordan saw Dora roll her eyes. “You have a comment, Ms. Veriden?”

    “No. Just wondering if you feel safe with me at the back of the formation.”

    Caine frowned. “Elaborate, please.”

    “C’mon, when do we talk about the elephant that’s not just in the center of the room, but bursting its walls? We heard the gunshots in the rear section; we see the people who are missing. But no one knows what happened back there; no one saw. Raskolnikov sealed the after-compartments the moment the firing started, kept it locked down until Rulaine called to tell him you were about to come aboard.”

    Caine folded his arms. “There were three bodies just inside the aft hatchway: Mizrahi, Dieter, and Danysh. The arrangement of their bodies makes it forensically possible that the murderer was killed by one of his victims. It is also likely that the murderer was the same person who sabotaged the Slaasriithi shift cruiser. During our evacuation, Yiithrii’ah’aash informed me that Oleg Danysh caused the power loss that exposed us to what was obviously a carefully staged ambush.”

    “It’s possible that Danysh and the other two killed each other, but it’s not likely,” Veriden insisted, staring hard at Caine.

    “No, it’s not,” Riordan agreed, motioning her toward the rear of the gathering group. “But right now, Ms. Veriden, whatever happened on the Slaasriithi ship is not of primary importance. Figuring out how to survive on this world is. Part of that process means traveling safety. So get to your position in the formation. We are moving out.”



    High in the neoaerie of Disparity’s Third Silver Tower, Senior Ratiocinator Mriif’vaal considered the speakers of both the cerdor and convector taxae who had come to deliver their reports in person. Their pheromones were an olfactory cacophony of uncertainty, anxiety, dismay. “The first alert of the alien craft came from the spore-shields, correct?”

    “That is correct, Mriif’vaal,” asserted the cerdor, whose individual specialty was in overseeing the data interfaces and transfers between biota and mechanisms. “But the alien craft was not marked as an intruder.”

    “Truly? Why not?”

    “That is unclear, Mriif’vaal. The high-air spores are too simple to discern anything other than whether an object has been marked with Recognition, or not.”

    “Yes, but you only said it was not marked as an intruder. Did it therefore carry the mark of Recognition, or did it somehow pass through the spore-shield without triggering either categorization?”

    “I — I do not know, Mriif’vaal. The spore-shield did not dust a Recognition confirmation upon the regional ground biota, but nor did it signal an absence of Recognition marking. I suppose,” the cerdor mused, “that it must have detected a Recognition but did not transmit it.”

    “That would be a dangerously uncertain supposition,” Mriif’vaal said mildly. “Besides, there is no precedent for such a mixed result. But let us turn to the reports of the convectorae. What did your foragers encounter, Unsymaajh? Did they observe the descent of the craft?”

    The unusually large convector’s neck contracted slightly. “No, Mriif’vaal. They only detected the breaking of the sound barrier as it descended.”

    “Did any of them send Affined sloohavs to fly in search of the place it where it came to ground and to sample the spore-change in that locale?”

    “There were no sloohavs on hand to summon to that task.”

    The cerdor’s eager interjection sounded like an extended chirp. “Would it not be prudent to send a rotoflyer to explore the alien’s projected region of terminal descent?”

    Mriif’vaal raised a temporizing tendril. “That is an excellent idea, which we will hold in reserve.” The Senior Ratiocinator smiled within: and which you are eager to enact, given your taxon’s love of complicated machines. “But for now, we shall pursue subtler means of detection and, if deemed prudent, contact. We do not know these aliens’ capabilities or their intents. Any machines we might deploy, particularly aircraft, will be easily discerned. They are particularly susceptible to detection by orbital sensors.”

    Alongside Mriif’vaal, his designated respondent and Third Ratiocinator, Hsaefyrr, stirred from her meditative absorption — and thus, recording — of the discourse. “The defense spheres are no longer actively engaged. Is it likely that hostile or unpermitted objects remain in orbit?”

    Mriif’vaal’s tendrils switched once. “The absence of detectable orbital objects only means that nothing anomalous remains within the range of our sensor-cloud or the action range of the defense spheres. This descended craft might have a homing beacon. Its crew could thus establish lascom lock with extraorbital allies and transmit information. Or perhaps the forces which attacked Yiithrii’ah’aash’s ship may have seeded the space above us with sensors as undetectable as our own. So, while the current circumstances might signify that we may act without fear of report, they do not guarantee it. We may simply be unable to detect all the elements that might bring us under observation.”

    Hsaefyrr swiveled her head toward the bantam cerdor. “Did you detect any radio emissions from the craft?”

    “We were uninformed of its initial descent, and so were not attentive to any signaling at that time. Since it made planetfall, we have detected a few transmissions, but all are low power and very short range.”

    Mriif’vaal released a few Appreciation pheromones in elderly Hsaefyrr’s direction. “Cerdor, tell me: are any of these signals known to us, either in their cyphers or physical characteristics?”

    The cerdor emitted a rattle of chagrin. “I regret to say that I have little expertise in such matters. However, I may assure you that the signals are not ours, nor the Arat Kur’s, nor the Hkh’ Rkh’s.”

    Mriif’vaal mused a moment. “So it may be that this ship carried the visitors that Yiithrii’ah’aash informed us he was bringing planetside tomorrow. About whose species I have some conjectures. But it is just as likely that this ship was part of the force that attacked them, and whose origins are equally unclear.”

    The cerdor’s hip joints flexed anxiously. “Then what shall we do?”

    “We shall send three overseers to manage this matter as it unfolds: one cerdor, one convector, and one ratiocinator. The two of you shall fulfill those roles I have thusly designated for your respective taxae. I shall find a suitable mid-life ratiocinator within the hour. You shall approach, observe, and report upon the aliens, aided by biota only. You shall make direct contact with me if the ratiocinator and at least one of you two deem it wise. You may employ whatever subtaxae you require to locate and keep track of these arrivals to our planet. In the meantime, our rotoflyers and other relevant mechanisms shall remain ready and pre-loaded with defense automata. Lastly, we will see to the distribution of spores that alert all our taxae to evacuate the area that lies along the projected route of the aliens’ advance.” Mriif’vaal stared at the luminous holograph which floated before them, offering an unusually precise view of the region in which the alien craft was thought to have descended. “Do you have any sense of their progress, yet?”

    “No, but it seems likely they will follow the river downstream,” answered Unsymaajh.

    Mriif’vaal bobbed agreeably. “Which will make them easy to find and follow.”

    Hsaefyrr’s observation was typically sour. “Which, in turn, will make them easy to kill for any pursuers that might hunt them”

    “Yes,” Mriif’vaal agreed sadly. “This is also true.”

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