Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 15

Chapter Twenty-Five

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

Some of the cluster-trees were smoldering when Riordan followed de los Reyes out of the cave mouth. Twenty meters away, Fanny had the balance of the security team hunkered down behind some crates. They were scanning the southern half of the perimeter constantly.

The cave entry team had crossed half the distance to the crates when a patter of small, scree-flinging explosions erupted, paralleling their path ten meters to the west.

“Cover right!” Fanny shouted over the tactical channel. “The CO is under fire –”

“Belay that.” Duncan’s interruption was sharp. “That fire is intended for Puller.”

“Pretty weak effort,” Riordan remarked as he threw himself down behind the crate next to Fanny’s.

“They probably don’t know what they’re shooting at,” Solsohn explained. “Our passive track-back indicates that burst came from one of their light vehicles, almost four hundred meters away. They don’t have any units closer than that.”

Fanny scanned the solid walls of interconnected trees around them. “How the hell do they know where to shoot? Er…sir.”

“There’s a pipe-thin sight-line from their position to ours. My guess is they can’t see us, but they’ll have passive sensors, too, and Puller’s engines must stand out like flares on their thermals. I could use the laser I kept in PDF mode to intercept the rounds, Commodore.”

Riordan considered. “Negative, Major. Intercept requires active sensors. If they’ve got any missiles waiting for us, we might as well paint a bull’s eye on the hull.”

“Just trying to keep down the local body count, sir.”

“Acknowledged. But we’re going to need to take out that vehicle before we can cross the rest of the clearing.”

“I could maneuver closer –” began Karam.

“Negative. Don’t give them anything new to detect and aim at. Duncan, can you align the railgun back down that line-of-sight to the enemy vehicle?” Another patter of autocannon rounds tore up a strip of ground near the two helicopters, leading toward Puller.

“Already there, sir. We rotated Puller to take the enemy under fire if necessary.”

“Then I say three times: you are weapons-free. Engage the target.”

Puller, still hovering at the far edge of the clearing, rose up slightly. A sharp flash near its bow — so quick that Riordan wondered if he had actually seen or imagined it — was accompanied by the characteristically flat crash of a railgun discharge. An instant later, deep in the woods, there was a sharp explosion.

“Target neutralized,” Duncan reported.

Riordan rose, waving the others up. “Let’s go. Straight into the ventral bay. No rear security element. Move.”

Riordan knew that there were no Hkh’Rkh within visual range and that the only enemy which had weapons bearing was now a flaming wreck. But that did not reduce Riordan’s eagerness to get across the clearing and up Puller’s ramp. As soon as the last Guard was on board, he leaned toward his helmet’s audio pickup: “We’re aboard. Boost.” Then, to the troopers around him: “Hang on.”

They did — just in time to get slung about like rucksacks dangling from single straps.

Karam’s voice was calm, almost amused. “Where to, sir?”

“I’ll tell you as soon as I get a report from Dr. Sleeman on enemy movement.”

There was a pause, during which Puller’s flight leveled off. Then: “Commodore, this doesn’t make sense.”

“Details, please, doctor.”

“Yes, sir. I’m piping it to your HUD. Faster that way.”

The view through the helmet visor greyed as it went into display mode. An aerial view of the same region blinked into existence, but the positions and activities of the Hkh’Rkh sensor contacts were radically different from before. Rather than reversing away from the clearing, the local vehicles, both light and heavy, were converging on it rapidly. Further to the right, or east, the Hkh’Rkh scouts who had apparently caught the scent of the fleeing humans were now overtaking them. Video feed from the quadrotors sent to that area showed that two light vehicles had swerved to join the pursuit.

“Typical,” Riordan murmured.

“What’s typical?” Karam asked. “That the Hkh’Rkh are crazy?”

“No: when faced with aggression, they don’t stop to assess. They just respond with even more aggression. I suspect their evolution hard-wired them for it.”

Solsohn’s voice was flat. “Tactically stupid, though.”

“I saw plenty of that in Indonesia,” Riordan agreed. “But in the long-run, it helps them, too. Anyone they fight knows that when a Warrior is coming at you, it is not a threat: it’s a promise, and either you or they will die in the process of their keeping it. If anyone’s morale is shaky, they give up — and the Hkh’Rkh spare them. They never kill or torture prisoners, even though they may have utter disdain for them. It’s part of their code.”

Sleeman sounded distracted. “A bit like the Mongols. Surrender, and your life goes on as before. Resist, and you’re exterminated.”

But Riordan’s attention was on the vehicles converging on the clearing they had left. Damn it: if they keep coming on at that pace, I won’t have any choice but to… “Karam, we need to get between the Hkh’Rkh chasers and the humans we have to extract.”

“Sir, if I do that, I can’t guarantee the Hkh’Rkh won’t eyeball us.”

“Acknowledged. But tell Wedge One to stay north of the objective. We need to keep them out of the fight.”

“Roger. Executing.”

The deck swayed as Puller began angling in a different direction.

Fanny stood. “What about us, sir?”

“Restock ammo and consumables and rest if you can. I don’t think the day — well, the night — is over just yet.”

* * *

Riordan arrived on the bridge just as Karam Tsaami was slowing Puller and easing her down closer to the trees. “One of those vehicles saw us, sir. Took a pot shot. Missed by a mile. Literally.”

“No target lock? No guidance systems?”

“It was cannon-fire. Not even laser targeting. Amateur hour.”

“Local militia,” Riordan corrected as he slid into his acceleration couch. “They’ve probably got hand-me-downs, and even the front-line Hkh’Rkh materiel was pretty rudimentary, by our standards.” He studied the regional overview. “But they’ve got lots of it, and it’s all over the place.”