Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 11
“You, sir? Coming out here?”
Riordan felt all three pairs of eyes on the bridge upon him. “I say again, I will be joining you. Hold the creepers in position, out of sight. I want two of the personnel you have covering the cave to swap out their lethals for suppressive rounds. Low juice feed, high rate of fire. And gas grenades for your tubes. If possible, we are going to keep this from turning into bloodshed. Keep me updated. Riordan out.”
“Sir –” started Sleeman and Solsohn.
“No time,” Caine interrupted. “And no time to equip a Know-It-All rig.”
“Even so, sir, protocol in this situation –”
“Does not encompass the variables here. Of which, one is paramount.” He was already at the ready locker just beyond the valve to the bridge. “Who here speaks Hkhi?”
Riordan grabbed a duty-suit already fitted with an armor liner. “I speak about two hundred words. That’s probably at least 199 more than they’ve heard from a human so far. So if there’s a chance to talk our way out of a fight, this is the moment. Once blood is spilled, it becomes an Honor issue. Finding a way back to a parley would be difficult and highly unlikely.”
“Yeah, I heard about that crap,” Karam muttered. “Scuttlebutt is that once honor is involved, they become bushido bear-ardvarks beating their horse chests and making much ado about nothing.”
Caine pulled a CoBro 8mm liquimix rifle out of the ready-rack. “It’s life and death to them, Karam. Talking to them, rather than shooting at them, in the next five minutes could mean the difference between getting our people out of here peacefully, or going to war. But if comes to shooting, I’m going to need to know if our suppressives will work, Dr. Sleeman.”
“Right. I’ll get on the research. With the eye that’s not watching the sensors.”
“Commodore,” Duncan murmured. “Protocol says you must be wearing an armor shell — a cuirass, at least — before you –”
“Major, you are correct to quote the regs. I am exercising commander’s privilege to disregard due to extenuating circumstances. And if those circumstances become more extenuating than we hope, you are in charge of Puller in the event of my — my prolonged absence. You will also inform Major Rulaine that he is brevetted to lieutenant colonel and to carry on as the mission CO.” Riordan grabbed a helmet, moved toward the ventral bay.
Duncan cleared his throat. “Good luck. Sir.”
“You save that luck, Major. This situation is well in hand,” Riordan lied with a smile, then resumed his short jog to the bay.
* * *
Through the combo goggles, Turkh’saar didn’t look different from any other biogenic world. The outlines of the plantlife were so repetitive in form as to be interchangeable and there was no color, not even of the corrected variety. Since the atmosphere on Turkh’saar was an unknown as far as humans were concerned, Riordan was running with a sealed helmet, the filtration set on maximum. The fact that other humans had already been operating here didn’t prove much: for all he knew, they were using filter masks. But, glancing at the Huey again, Caine was coming to doubt that more and more.
The rest of the team showed up as blue triangles on his HUD display, located just ahead, three aiming into the cave, three aiming outward, one hunkered down in the center. Riordan headed for that central triangle, overrode the voice-activation of his tac-set, made sure the external speaker was on. “Coming in on your six,” he said quietly.
The external audio pick ups crackled as Fanny responded. “We see you, Commodore.” If he noticed that Caine was not armored to protocol, he didn’t say anything.
Riordan crouched low as he approached, staying well out of the threat-cone defined by the cave-mouth. He took a knee next to where Fanny was keeping his attention divided between the two fire teams. “Sitrep, Top.”
“No movement in the cave, sir, but when our audio pickups are on max gain, we get what sound like voices.”
“Human or Hkh’Rkh?”
“Too faint to say. This cave probably goes back a way. Forty meters, probably more. No further thermals, but we can see inside the first ten meters or so: abandoned sentry posts, non-combat load dumped all over the place. Everyone left in a hurry. Funny they didn’t take these two helicopters.”
“Not if they heard Puller. They probably figured us for Hkh’Rkh and that we’d shoot them out of the sky the moment they took off. What have the creepers found?”
“Solid rock in there, sir. If I send them in further, we’ll lose line-of-sight and have to resort to broadcast. And that might not be much better. Creepercam shows us what look like some sharp cut-backs. That’ll baffle-block the hell out of their weak broadcast units.”
Riordan wasn’t about to try a blind advance into a cave for which he had no groundplan. “Top, who’s your best with comms and remote ops?”
“Lance Corporal Somers, sir. Head and shoulders above the rest.”
“Okay. When we go in, she’s going to keep one creeper advancing so that it remains just within LoS of our pointman. I don’t want to send them an automated greeting card in advance, but I’m not about to charge in there blind, either.”
“And if they tweak to the creeper?”
“Then we’ll have already closed to within ten meters or so.”
“That could get messy, sir. Hand grenades?”
“That’s our last recourse, Top. I’m here to talk to the Hkh’Rkh, not splatter them.”
Fanny required an extra second to process that. “Understood, Commodore. Who do you want on entry?” He was already checking his weapon.
“I appreciate your eagerness, Top, but I need you back here, protecting our backs and maintaining a clear route of withdrawal to Puller. I need the calmest folks you’ve got. I’m guessing two of those are de los Reyes and Somers.”
“That’s my read on them, sir. ‘Course, I haven’t known ’em much longer than you have.”
“No, but you eat and bunk with them, so you’ve had more face-time — and not in officer country. Tell me: can you spare Martell?”
“Sure, sir. Securing the mouth of the cave with a friendly corvette in immediate fire support isn’t exactly a scary job. Not even for green recruits, and we don’t have any of those in the Guard.”
“Okay, then Martell is coming with me also. Have York watch the cavern mouth, just in case something happens to us and the OpFor comes boiling out at you.”
“Roger that, sir. Anything else?”
“I’m going to get some last second info. Then we execute.” He reactivated the tactical channel. “Doctor Sleeman?”
“Commodore, when are you going to start calling me Melissa?”
“When we don’t have military discipline to maintain. What have you found out about using our suppressives on the Hkh’Rkh?”
“Nothing promising. They shrugged off tear gas. CNDM was, at most, an irritant. More to their mood than their membranes.”
Damn. “What about tranq rounds?”
“Not much better, sir. Their armor deflects non-lethals like ours, so you’ll need hits on exposed flesh. You’ll also need multiple hits, at least two to slow them down, four to drop them. But then, there’s a tendency to go downhill quickly from there.”
“You mean, the sedative becomes toxic at those levels?”
“That, and a possible allergic reaction. Our database still doesn’t include much about their biology: it hasn’t been updated since Downing was last on Earth. These early reports speculate that their allergy analogs have much more gradual onsets than ours, but if you hit them too hard with a substance, there’s apparently a toxin/immuno-modulation response that gets overloaded and starts to cascade. Exponentially.”
Great: so the line between knocking them out and sending them into cardiac arrest or a coma is a dangerously fine one. And probably varies from individual to individual. “Thank you, Doctor. What are you seeing on the sensors?”
“Threat vehicles are becoming active again, sir. The heavier ones in the second rank are moving, collecting into three groups. The lighter vehicles are advancing, but staying at least one hundred meters behind their scouts.”
“The closest Hkh’Rkh team is within three hundred meters, sir, and advancing slowly in your general direction.”
“ETA if they maintain pace?”
“Five to six minutes, sir.”
“Duncan, if I need those lasers for suppressive fire –”
“I can override their PDF function and use them in tactical mode, sir.”
“Excellent. Riordan out.”
Fanny had evidently heard the chatter, despite it being muffled by Caine’s sealed helmet. He had silently rearranged his rump squad. De los Reyes, Somers, and Martell were waiting near the cave opening. “You don’t have a lot of time, sir.”
“You have a talent for understatement, Top. Somers, you’re at the back with the ROV and comms gear, controlling the creepers and making sure we have LoS back to the cave mouth. Drop a relay each time we come to a blind corner. Martell, I want you to swap out your Co-Bro’s expanders for tranq rounds. De los Reyes, from what I hear, you are among the Guards’ best when it comes to seeing while not being seen. You’ve got point — but you are not, I repeat not, weapons free. If you detect anything, you wave me forward.”
“Sir, with all due respect –”
“Corporal, trying to talk our way out of this means we’ve got to lead with a mouth, not a muzzle. That’s why you’re in the lead until we know contact is imminent — or we get a rude surprise. Either way, you’re the best for those jobs.”
Martell leaned forward. “So you want me as the slackman, Commodore?”
“No, I’m taking the number two spot until de los Reyes waves me forward. You will advance with me past de los Reyes if we are moving into final contact, because we’re loaded for tranq. Set your weapon for 500 rounds per minute, lowest juice. We want lots of hits, so low recoil.”
“We won’t get any penetration.”
“With tranqs, it won’t matter. Either we hit skin or we’re just pissing ’em off. Everybody clear?”
“The plan scans, sir,” de los Reyes nodded.
“Then let’s move out.”