Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 12

Chapter Twenty-Four

Beyond the Eastern Fringelands, BD+56 2966 Two (“Turkh’saar”)

Ten meters in, Caine pointed at the abandoned gear: some old-style military fatigues, sleeping bags, a few shelter-halfs rigged as hammocks, rations, water containers — but no sign of masks or spare filters. Judging from the abandoned utensils, no one had been eating through the cheek-mounted ration-packets that CTR troops had nicknamed “feed-bags.” Riordan popped the full seal on his helmet, opened the ear-plates.

“Yeh reck that tae be safe, sir?” Somers asked.

“Mostly, and at this point, I want to be listening with my own ears rather than those damned pickups.”

“Bear” de los Reyes nodded emphatically. “Copy that, sir.”

They all adjusted their gear.

Faint sounds came from up ahead. Then a sudden sonorous hoot.

“What the hell –?” breathed Martell.

“Hkh’Rkh expression of surprise,” Caine explained.

“Happy or nae?” Somers whispered.

“Can’t tell.” Riordan put a hand over his mouth to signal for silence, nodded to de los Reyes. They resumed their advance.

Ten meters further on, staying as close to the cavern’s sides as the irregular surface allowed, Riordan watched one of the two small blue dots in his HUD — a creeper — inch forward. It revealed a low side cavern filled with stores, mostly of unfamiliar manufacture and purpose. The creepercam cycled through vision options until it arrived at maximum-gain thermal imaging: ghostly footprints were revealed, both entering and exiting the chamber. Somers panned the view around the chamber: no biosigns of any kind.

De los Reyes held up, took a knee, gestured with his off hand toward the main branch of the cavern, checking if it was permissible to bypass the storage area. Riordan nodded and gave a forward wave. De los Reyes nodded back, rose, resumed their approach.

Somers moved the second creeper beyond the first, performing a kind of remote-operated leapfrog advance deeper into the cave. Some thermal after-images came into view: faint, but over two meters tall: Hkh’Rkh had passed recently. De los Reyes slowed his advance: if he made any noise, Riordan could not hear it.

Five meters further on, the lead creepercam showed the cavern becoming far more irregular: sharp turns and cuts and dips. More thermal afterimages, but almost fully faded. On the other hand, the creeper’s audio pickup was becoming far more active: there was clearly an excited conversation in Hkhi taking place. Hard to tell how far away given the twists in the passage, though.

“What are they saying, sir?” Somers asked.

“Can’t tell: the one’s I knew spoke a lot more English than I ever spoke Hkhi. The local dialect and this cave’s acoustics don’t help. But they’re excited; trying to figure something out.” So we’d better hurry. “Corporal de los Reyes, we’ve gotta pick up the pace. Now.”

“Bear” De los Reyes waved once, and began moving with long, gliding steps. He entered the cave’s chicane section with fast, waist-snapping motions as he covered each new bend with his rifle. But his feed, as well as that from the creepers ahead of him, was starting to break up.

“Commodore,” Somers whispered tensely, “I’m losing contact with de los Reyes. And our signal back to the cave mouth isn’t –”

Riordan shook his head, kept moving forward: the switchbacks in the cave were causing more trouble than anticipated. Well, no plan survives contact with reality and today is no exception. He looked back at Martell quickly, very deliberately took his gun off safety; the private did the same.

De los Reyes held up the same moment that the lead creeper went swiftly around a corner and suddenly found itself on the threshold of a large, higher-ceilinged chamber. And behind a small outcropping of rock to the right, were two Hkh’Rkh. But they were only partially visible, and their actions had them moving into the line of sight and out again.

“Double-time,” Riordan ordered Martell. “De los Reyes, we’re going past you.”

“Copy that.”

Riordan discovered his armpits were suddenly as damp and cold as if he’d climbed out of a pool. He wondered what his pulse and BP looked like, refused to spare them a glance. His focus was rapidly contracting down to a single point: the large, thermal Hkh’Rkh silhouettes that came into view in his own combo goggles at the end of his third step past de los Reyes…

Which was the same moment that the larger of the two silhouettes raised a darker object: it had the boxy outline of a Hkh’Rkh assault rifle. Its wielder aimed it at something hidden by the rock outcropping, snarled something about ugly or monstrous humans.

Riordan tensed: had they discovered humans hiding back in the cave? Maybe not — but reflex took over, because he had to beat a tightening trigger finger.

Riordan stepped forward, shouted “No!” in Hkhi. Then “Friend!” and “Honor!” — as the Hkhi spun and aimed the gun in his direction, albeit somewhat uncertainly. Then, a split second later, the aim steadied.

Damn it. Caine dropped, locking his Co Bro’s smart tracking system on the approximate target area, and squeezed the trigger.

The cave amplified the rebounding reports into a deafening, spastic thunders. The sharp 12 millimeter barks of the Hkh’Rkh weapon sent a spray of rounds snapping over Riordan’s head, snarling and whining as they chewed at the rock wall behind him. Riordan’s Co Bro uttered a simultaneous rippling cough: a byproduct of the high rate of fire and low velocity projectives. A few of which may have hit, thanks to the gun’s automatic area engagement system and gyroscopic stabilization.

A second stream of Co Bro fire added to his own: Martell, firing from behind the last turn of the rocky chicane.

The Hkh’Rkh’s thermal outline staggered under the impact of the combined fires, recovered slowly.

“Friend. Stop,” shouted Riordan. “No kill. No fight.” He had already spent forty of the sixty tranq rounds in his heterogenous magazine. After that, he only had standard penetrators.

The upper torso of another Hkh’Rkh silhouette popped around the blind corner, raising a shorter, but heavier weapon: a scattergun.

“Commodore?” de los Reyes yelled over the tac channel as the first Hkh’Rkh resumed firing, albeit unsteadily: splinters of shattered stone started jetting up in front of Riordan.

Damn it. “Go lethal.” He swapped over to his magazine’s left-hand stack, cut the rate of fire to two hundred rounds per minute, upped the hot juice to fifty percent, and aimed at the further silhouette.

By that time, Martell had unleashed the rest of his tranqs at the lead Hkh’Rkh, who wavered, his aim wandering away from Caine as he staggered back toward cover — and straight into Caine’s and de los Reyes’ line of fire.

The echoing, much-magnified sound of the Co-Bros had changed: each now emitted a stuttering hiss. The fleeing Hkh’Rkh’s silhouette sagged almost as soon as the ugly duet commenced, and a moment later, de los Reyes’ rounds were chewing into the cover used by the other Hkh’Rkh, who flinched back.

“Sound off,” yelled Caine, who scrambled to the side of the chamber, getting out of the second Hkh’Rkh’s line of sight. Martell, de los Reyes and Somers all answered.

“Now what?” Martell asked. In the background, Riordan could hear him reloading and making adjustments to his Co Bro.

The second Hkh’Rkh popped out briefly. The twenty-four millimeter shotgun roared like a stone-gutted cannon. As de los Reyes’ Co Bro replied, a moment too late, Caine made sure his voice was steady. “Martell, get up here with me. Move after his next pop out.”

“Sir, how do you know he’ll –?”

Riordan grabbed an abandoned boot, tossed it back toward his prior position.

The Hkh’Rkh evidently leaned out, blasted at the sound. De los Reyes returned several shots: came closer, but did not hit the big exosapient. Under the cover of that targeted fire, Martell rolled around the final corner of the chicane and scrambled over to join Caine, out of the enemy’s field of vision.