Marque of Cain – Snippet 04

The other drone kept observing the ship until the first was within a hundred meters of Charlestown. Then it, too, went over the stern and dropped closer to the waves, rushing to catch up to its larger partner and seeking for the transponder signal that it had been coded to discover amidst the wash of other transmissions cluttering the local wavelengths.

Catching a faint fragment of the target signal, the drone angled toward The Narrows and locked on to a course that would swing around the north slopes of Mount Nevis until it reached the jungle ravines on its windward side.

*     *     *

Caine’s car bumped and creaked up his steep driveway, the engine’s labors diminishing once it crested the lip of the car port.

Up the stairs to the single-story house two steps at a time, physical key into the front door, and then Riordan was moving briskly for the kitchen. Specifically, to the refrigerator for a bottle of water. Hikes into Nevis’ rain-forested volcanic slopes were strenuous, not low-impact strolls.

The bottle misted over as soon as it came out of the fridge, prompting Caine to glance at the brass weather clock on his way to the white-washed veranda. The humidity wasn’t too bad. Better than the water-beaded bottle had made him anticipate.

But, as Riordan stepped outside to test it for himself, he had to admit that his concern with the humidity was more a matter of habit than anything else. Upon arriving two years ago, he’d been trepidatious about walks in the jungle. By 1:00 PM, the air felt more like something you drank rather than breathed, summoning memories that had been burned into his lungs and his mind. Three and a half years ago, he had struggled to keep up with Indonesian insurgents in Java. A year after that, he had almost died of xenospore-induced asthma on a planet of the very alien Slaasriithi.

But now, miraculously, his wind was better than ever and seemed to improve with each passing week. So had the ease with which he got through an increasing number of calisthenics, a moderate weight-lifting regimen, and morning swims in the ocean. Maybe it was the climate. Maybe it was his own home cooked food. Maybe it was the slower pace of life in the Caribbean. But in almost every way, he felt more vigorous and energetic than he had in ten years. Or maybe, he thought with a smile, that’s just another benefit of being relaxed, of being happy.

Of being a father.

Riordan popped the bottle’s top, took a long drink. Preemptive hydration remained a requirement, no matter how fit he felt, no matter how promising the weather was. And he’d never seen finer than today’s: still no clouds in the sky and still a cool breeze in the foothills.

He sipped again, stared down the long slope at the buildings of Brick Kiln. Some of the roofs were solar shingle, others refurbished solar panels, and no small number were still corrugated steel that winked and shimmered in the sun. Like the cracked and creased road which ran between those shiny-topped houses, nothing much had changed there since well before humanity had dodged its first extraplanetary threat forty years ago: the Doomsday Rock.

Riordan smiled at the contrast between the town and the Consolidated Terran Republic’s futurist projections and imagery. Like every new state before it, the CTR depicted the coming decades as those which would finally usher in a world of ubiquitous plenty, tidiness, and sleek new machinery.

The reality, both now and historically, was that whatever the future held, change was always uneven in distribution and irregular in timing. Plenty still varied along social lines. Tidiness was transient. And slick new technology labored alongside worn machines that were older than their operators.

Happily, that made Nevis a great place to hide. Although it was well-wired, many devices were still analog instead of digital, or even manual instead of electric. Only a modest number of its machines actively exchanged data, little of which was useful to the netcrawling search bots that could seek out a disappeared person’s electronic scent like so many computerized bloodhounds. The island had cameras in all the places that required them–the banks, the clinic, the two police stations, the small medical school, cargo holding areas, and the Air Terminal–but almost none on the roadways or in the schools. And if you spent cash rather than electronic credits, your online footprint remained practically invisible.

Riordan sealed the water bottle, slipped it into a cargo pocket as he made for his bedroom: time to change into a lighter, looser shirt.

As he entered, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. No worry wrinkles, no dark rings under his eyes. It was nice to start each day without looking over your shoulder for the people who were surely looking for you.

*     *     *

The small drone pulled ahead of the larger one, angling northeast, well away from Charlestown. They kept low as they neared the stretch of sand that marked the northern end of Pinney’s Beach: less spectacular and far from tourist amenities, it was the most likely place to come ashore undetected. An alarmed seagull watched the drones hum over the whitecaps, cross ten meters of coral powder beach, then five meters of dune grass and driftwood before disappearing into the dark beneath the palms.

Once concealed, the drones’ twinned trajectories bent northward, courting the shadows as they flew up the smooth, tree-cluttered slope. Skirting the small villages of Vaughans and Jessup’s Village, they held course until their altimeters indicated they were two hundred meters above sea level.

The larger drone’s on-board navigation program paused for a millisecond as its positional confirmation routine kicked in. Both drones’ sensors measured fixed emission sources and expected visual landmarks, compared results, established that the first over-ground waypoint had been reached. Second stage navigation and evasion parameters were accessed. Self-learning processes were initiated. Statistically significant operational variables–weather, EM activity levels, change in expected frequency of human or vehicular encounters–were assessed, deemed negligible.

Satisfied that all approach protocols were nominal, the larger drone emitted a single, coded millisecond ping. After two seconds, an even more brief, and heavily encoded signal pinged back: the target’s transponder. It was active, and its general directionality placed it well within the engagement footprint of the primary scenario.

With the discus now back in the lead, the two drones altered course dramatically. Whereas before they had been heading on a mostly straight line for the volcanic cone at the approximate center of Nevis, now they began to maneuver around it in a slow clockwise curve that kept them between 200 and 220 meters above sea level.

Driven by a ceaseless cascade of numbers, of digital measurements and directions, there was nothing in the drone’s processing that would have been vaguely familiar to a human’s sensory perception of the world. However, if a programmer had been there to translate the data stream, the plan was simple enough. Taking Mount Nevis as the face of a clock, the two drones were starting from the 9 o’clock position and sweeping around until they got to 1 o’clock: the coordinates of Waypoint Two.

Once there, they would be in range to commence terminal operations.