Marque of Cain – Snippet 05

Chapter Three

June, 2123

Nevis, Earth

As Riordan finished buttoning his shirt, his wristlink chirped: a pending text-message. Prefixed with a secure code he had only seen four times since arriving on Nevis. He authorized delivery, frowned as he read:

Antigua InterIsland Holidays:

The ultimate experience!

Riordan ignored the rest of the advertising copy; it was meaningless window-dressing. Instead, he double-checked the origination code: it had not come from the off-shore agents’ secure number on St. Kitts, but rather from the remote hub on Antigua. More importantly, the code phrases were authentic.

Specifically, “Antigua InterIsland Holidays” was the online business shell in which Caine’s protectors back in DC housed a direct comm link to him. The second line, “The Ultimate Experience!”, referred to his imminent death, not a unique island tour. The protocol triggered by that phrase required Riordan to presume himself completely compromised. He could not even trust the two agents on St. Kitts.

Reacting more than thinking, Caine started down the standard action list. Item number one: alert Connor.

But Riordan stopped his index finger in mid-jab. No. This was Ultimate Experience: the only condition which necessitateda reassessment of all security breach SOPs. Because if the breach was the result of an intel leak, then the enemy was almost certainly waiting for Caine to follow his assigned game plan.

Meaning that was precisely what he must not do. Alerting Connor would bring him back early, which was more likely to endanger than protect him: he was almost certainly not a target. But if the threat force expected Caine to signal him first, then–

Riordan took two long steps back into the kitchen, extracted his small go-kit from the hollowed-out heater. He opened it, pocketed the small liquimix pistol and scooped up the three micro drones. He brought up his wristlink’s emergency command screen, touched it to the first micro drone, tapped a preset code that would have it follow the road directly to the air terminal. Riordan made one change: instead of the drone emitting Caine’s transponder code, the drone was now set to imitate Connor’s. Riordan launched it. Humming, the tiny drone sped out to the veranda, dove out of sight toward the road.

The next two drones didn’t need any modifications to their preset routines. He set the first one loose from the front door, ran down to the car with the other. He opened the driver-side door, rolled down the windows, turned on the engine, tapped the dashboard, selected “regular destinations.” He chose the long route to Charlestown–twenty-two kilometers–and stepped back as the vehicle started driving itself down the hill. Illegal, of course, but he’d be happy to answer for it later. If he was still alive.

Patting his pocket to make sure the water bottle hadn’t fallen out, Caine made for the trees at the double-quick.

*     *     *

As the two drones from the Golden Hold reached the 12 o’clock position of their partial circumnavigation of Mount Nevis, their sensors registered three new transponders, all transmitting mission-critical codes.

One signal was not the target’s code. It belonged to the target’s child and was useful only as an ancillary indicator: it might be co-located with, or close to, the target itself. But in this case, the child’s signal was moving north on the main road, away from the other three. Whether it was heading for the air terminal, Charlestown, or some other destination, was immaterial to locating the actual target. However, it did trigger a recalculation of the mission’s completion parameters and a drastically reduced timeframe. With the ancillary signal moving away from the target, there was a significantly increased likelihood that the child was attempting to summon reinforcements for the target. The mission had to be completed before that was accomplished.

However, the far greater challenge to the drones’ self-learning systems was to assess how and why the original target transponder had suddenly transformed into three separate but identical signals, which were now moving on entirely different trajectories. One was apparently following the main road south at vehicular speed, directly away from the projected engagement zone. It was too early to calculate possible destinations or determine if this was simply a diversion.

The second signal was moving at human speed, but heading due east, either down to the small community designated as Brick Kiln or beyond it to the rocky Atlantic coastline and the wind turbines arrayed along it. Again, the destination could not yet be projected and diversionary movement was certainly a possibility.

The third signal was making slower progress in the opposite direction, heading toward Mount Nevis on a highly irregular course. This made it an excellent candidate for being the actual target: the movement was typical of humans, not machines. On the other hand, since there were now three identical signals moving in different directions, scenario algorithms indicated near certainty that the target was aware of the impending attack. It might have had time to program an automated device to mimic human movement. Data on the tactical sophistication and inventiveness of the target multiplied the likelihood of him employing such a ruse.

Probabilities and odds were integrated and compared, assets measured. It took an inordinately long time–almost two whole seconds–for the drones to arrive at their optimal response.

As they drew within five hundred meters of the original engagement zone, the discus-sized drone activated its three subdrones, each about the size of a clay pigeon. The discus slowed, giving them a stable launch platform as they rose up. One buzzed eastward, chasing the transponder signal heading for the coast. The other two joined the larger drone, which swerved southward in pursuit of the signal wending its way through the jungle. All variables considered, it had the highest probability of being the actual target, which, along with the difficult terrain, warranted the extra assets. The discus itself swung to follow the main road southward: chasing a vehicle while remaining in contact with the larger drone required its superior speed, endurance, and transmitter.

*     *     *

Riordan was gratified that he was not panting yet, even though he had pressed himself hard for the first fifteen minutes.

Still moving, he sipped from the water bottle, replaced it, and veered off his accustomed route, taking a game trail to the west. So much for this morning’s refreshing hike in the woods; now, it was a run through the jungle. He recalled a song by that name, played by one of the cryogenically suspended Vietnam War veterans that his team had found and rescued during the mission to the Hkh’Rkh colony world of Turkh’saar. The chorus of the song felt particularly appropriate, just now.

The game trail ended after fifty meters, reducing his progress to a slow, stumbling trot. The tall, thin tree trunks were thick around him, the stone-littered ground slimy with moisture and rotting leaves.

But this short cut reduced the distance by two-thirds and there were no clear sight lines. The region’s occasional hikers stayed on the trails, so they didn’t create new paths or gaps in the foliage. Whoever or whatever might be following Riordan would be hard put to follow, let alone keep up with, him.

Unless, of course, they had the codes that could dupe his surgically implanted transponder into emitting a ping: then they’d find him no matter where he went. Which made it all the more important that he reached the ravine before they reached him.

Up ahead, he could hear the distant chatter of a thin watercourse falling over rocks. He sprint-stumbled toward it.

*     *     *

The large drone and its two small scouts halted in front of a wall of tree trunks. The subdrones would certainly be able to weave their way forward, but it was impassable for the larger one. As a group, they reversed out of the dead end, the third one that had stymied them since the target’s transponder had moved off known trails. The large drone’s considerable self-learning program–mislabeled its “brain” by overenthusiastic academics and the journalists who believed them–analyzed the problem.

The crucial variable was the uncertainty of navigational outcome. The position of the target’s transponder was well-established; the trees did nothing to block the ping-backs. Standard algorithms had initially recommended a straight-line intercept, relying upon forward-looking radar scans to detect and follow vectors where the foliage was less dense. Unfortunately, the jungle continued to thicken and radar penetrated less than fifty meters. Each time, what started out as a comparatively clear path slowly became impassable.