Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 13

“Somers,” Riordan said, “sacrifice a creeper. Keep the other in overwatch. De los Reyes, we’ll be going in low and close.”

“Yes, sir,” they answered in unison as the Hkh’Rkh leaned out and blasted away again. Apparently at nothing.

In his HUD, Riordan watched the newest creeper skitter forward. The other fanned out to the left, courting the shadows and moving slowly, ultimately achieving a flanking view of the large exosapient, who had just finished reloading his weapon.

The other creeper reached the blind side of the corner, just two meters closer to it than Riordan and Martell.

Somers’s voice was sharp. “I’m in position.”


The flanking creeper emitted a short chirp, skittered back. The Hkh’Rkh started, swung its weapon uncertainly in that direction — just as the other creeper scuttled around the corner.

As it rounded the bend, its feed zoomed in on the Hkh’Rkh’s digitigrade left leg, painted brief cross-hairs on the joint most analogous to the ankle. The exosapient became aware of the closer creeper, swung his weapon down sharply —

Less than a meter away, the creeper launched itself with all limbs. Its appendages stretched out, grabbed hold, and tugged its body tight against the boot-greave of the exosapient.

It was the other creepercam which showed its small mechanical twin explode, taking the Hkh’Rkh’s leg out from under it, the large being slumping abruptly into the sheltering wall.

“Go,” muttered Caine.

He and Martell swept around the corner. Caine went wide and low, Martell tucked close and kept his weapon high.

“Stop!” Caine yelled in Hkhi. “Stop now!”

The Hkh’Rkh, holding his ruined joint with one gore-drenched hand, was so surprised that the scattergun slipped in his grip; he grabbed after it, started bringing it up —

Probably just reflex, Caine thought bitterly. But if I’m wrong —

He squeezed the trigger of his Co Bro the same moment that Martell did.

At two meters range, two five-round bursts of eight millimeter Co Bro penetrators were the equivalent of industrial mining lasers going through a plywood sheet. The Hkh’Rkh’s armor was peppered with holes, none particularly big. Even the exit wounds were not especially gruesome; they only varied from the entry wounds because the smart rounds knew when to start allowing flanges to widen out from their tails, thereby increasing drag and imparting more energy to the target.

The Hkh’Rkh fell back against the covering wall, already limp, and then slumped over, leaving a dull mauve smear behind him.

Caine rotated, swept his weapon across the back of the cave, searching for what the first Hkh’Rkh had been threatening with his assault rifle.

And discovered that it was, improbably, another Hkh’Rkh, crouched in a cage just large enough for him to stand in. What the hell –?

Martell came up alongside him, saw the imprisoned local. “Sir, are we clear? Or not?”

“That, Martell, is an excellent question.” Riordan panned his helmet cam slowly. “Are the rest of you seeing this?” There were murmured affirmatives.

Martell stepped closer. “Were they going to shoot him, sir?”

Riordan swept the room with his goggles at max gain. “Somers, does your last creeper show anything in here with us?”

“No, sir. I’ve had it scoot around the perimeter. Except for that caged bugbear, ye’re clear.”

“Understood. Corporal, you head back to where to can regain LoS to Sergeant Fanny.”

“But, sir –”

“Martell, you follow her far enough so that you and she can still read each other and you’ve either got LoS to me, or can shout and be heard.”

“Got it, sir.”

De los Reyes came alongside Caine as Martell departed. “And me, sir?”

“You keep your rifle trained on this Hkh’Rkh. Semiautomatic, expander rounds, go for a leg if you feel you can do so safely. I need a prisoner, not a corpse.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll do what I can.” Bernardo de los Reyes did not sound enthusiastically committed to his new assignment.

Riordan turned toward him, raised his faceplate. “Corporal, if you can’t curb your animosity and follow your orders to the letter, I will have your stripes in my hand and your ass in hack. Within the hour.”

De los Reyes’s eyes opened a little wider. He nodded. “Sir, yes, sir. I will only shoot to subdue. Unless you are in imminent mortal danger, sir.”

“Excellent.” Riordan stepped closer to the cage. The Hkh’Rkh’s small, black-pebble eyes followed him warily, but he did not move. Caine studied the dimensions of the cage: probably can’t shift position even if he wanted to.

Studying the Hkh’Rkh further, he was struck by another difference: the exosapient’s apparel. It was different from those of the two that had been killed; it looked more finished, as if it was part of a uniform. A closer look yielded more evidence for that conjecture: there were insignias of rank on his shoulders, where epaulets would be on a human uniform. Riordan recognized the rank; he was a senior band-leader. Roughly equal to a sergeant, but with over-tones of being both a warrant-officer and a lieutenant-in-training.

But the wide-legged shorts that were the typical Hkh’Rkh lower garment were not of the same manufacture. Wait; no, they were, but they had been damaged, torn.

No: shot. There were two bullet-holes near the cuff. Crouching down, Riordan inspected that leg: it was still wrapped. One wound, mostly healed, was uncovered. Caine stared at it, quickly glanced up at the Hkh’Rkh.

Surprised, it flinched away its eyes, unsuccessfully trying to conceal its reciprocal interest.

Caine stood slowly, toggled the tactical channel, hoped the relay through Martell and Somers was working. “Puller, can you read me?”

“Aye, sir,” Duncan’s voice answered, “and glad you’re on the horn. You don’t have a lot of time left. The Hkh’Rkh are closing in on your position. Not a lot of them, but if we want to keep this bloodless –”

“We’re past that. I don’t know if my Hkhi was incomprehensible, they were worried about being tricked, or they just didn’t give a damn. But I blew our chances to keep this from going sideways. I’ve got two dead in here and…are you seeing this?”

“Yes, sir,” Sleeman replied. “We’ve seen high-speed playback of the whole encounter. There’s nothing you could have done, sir.”

“That’s not my focus, now. Run the playback from the creepercams and time it. How long do you estimate the two Hkh’Rkh scouts were in this rearmost chamber before we arrived?”

There was a pause. “Maybe twenty seconds, sir. But I repeat, don’t blame yourself –”

“Doctor, I’m not concerned with that right now. Twenty seconds. They must have found him here.”

“Stands to reason,” Karam said in the background.

Riordan scanned the area around the cage, discovered a drinking vessel, a honeypot, some food that was definitely not of human origin. He studied the cage more closely. It had been fashioned from thick wooden shafts, and the door was secured with a distinctly human padlock of massive proportions. An old one, Riordan realized, and upon leaning closer to it, discovered that the manufacturer’s information was written in Cyrillic.

Riordan leaned away. “He wasn’t being threatened.”

“Then why did they level a gun at him?” Somers asked.

“They weren’t aiming at him. They were trying to shoot off the lock.”

De los Reyes sounded skeptical. “Sir, do you really think it would take them that long just to shoot a lock?”

“I do, Corporal. Look at the size of that cage. He couldn’t get out of their field of fire. He probably had to fold himself over like a contortionist to be safe. At which point, we enter the picture.”

Duncan’s voice was eager. “So you think he was their — the humans’ — prisoner?”