Marque of Caine – Snippet 18

Part Two


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

(Who shall guard the guards themselves?)

Collective Space and Earth

September, 2123 – July, 2124

Chapter Eleven

November, 2123

Deep Space below the ecliptic, Wolf 424 A

Caine flinched awake. The alternating tone of the “all-clear” wasn’t deafening, but neither was it a sound one could sleep through. However, that was just fine with Riordan: it meant that the shift-carrier Down-Under had completed its transit from Wolf 359 and was safely beyond CTR space.

Riordan propped himself up in his combination acceleration couch and bunk, felt a subtle sideways tug; the ship’s rotational habitat, or rohab, was slowly resuming spin. He resisted the urge to lie back down; drowsiness was exerting an even greater force than the slowly-increasing gravity equivalent. By scheduling shifts for the end of passenger sleep cycles, commercial carriers minimized tumbles and injuries from post-transit vertigo.

However, Down-Under was currently a commercial hull in name only. She had been leased by the Commonwealth government for a logistical run to Wolf 359 and then the naval depot at Lalande 21185. When they had started out from Earth, most of the eighty conscious passengers were civilian specialists who disembarked at the first stop, contractors for updating the automated facilities there. The remainder were naval personnel who were subsequently briefed that there would be a previously undisclosed stop before they reached the naval depot: Wolf 424. What they did not know was that a Dornaani ship would be waiting there for Caine. Hopefully.

Riordan unstrapped, rose into a sitting position. The gravity equivalent was already close to point two gee. If Captain Kim Schoeffel ran the ship according to civilian norms, she’d stop the steady increase when it reached point three, then push it up another tenth of a gee every half hour or so.

Caine stood, moved carefully to his stateroom’s locker, pulled out a civilian duty suit fitted with an EVA hood and liner: his invariable daywear. The civilian contractors had joked about it amiably, alternately ensuring him that the hull was leak-proof and that the war was over. Riordan had just nodded, smiled, and silently hoped they’d have no reason to regret their jibes.

He attached a drinking bulb to the tap, filled it to half. As he sipped the water and swirled it around in his mouth, the door’s courtesy pager emitted a single tone. “It’s open.”

The pressure door slid aside and Ed Peña entered. Slowly. Which was how he did most everything, unless the tempo of events demanded otherwise.

Riordan had seen that occur only once. Ed had been at the helm of the cutter he had requisitioned to catch Down-Under before she began her preacceleration burn to Wolf 359. When DWC drones began threatening to obstruct their rendezvous vector, Peña had gone into piloting overdrive, then simultaneously fooled and flummoxed the Jovian traffic controllers until the cutter was docked. As soon as the unwelcome excitement was over, Ed had slunk back into contented lassitude: evidently, his preferred state of being.

Ed waited patiently just inside the hatchway. “You’re wanted in the captain’s ready room.”

Riordan made for the door. “Why didn’t the comms adjutant just call me on the intraship?”

“Same reason you’re being asked to the ready room instead of the bridge. To keep you from being seen in places or doing things that would suggest you’re an important passenger.” He hadn’t appended his sentences with “commodore” since they’d stepped aboard Down-Under: if at all possible, Riordan’s journey was to be incognito. But Caine could still hear Ed’s unvoiced addition of the military title, could sense it in the small nod with which he ended almost every sentence.

Riordan nodded back and led the way.

Walking a few dozen meters keelward put them in the rotranzo, or rotational transfer zone: the juncture where the parts of the ship that were rotating interfaced with those that were not. They stepped quickly from one slideway to the next, each slowing them until they were within the main, keel-following hull, motionless and in zero-gee. Once there, Caine and Ed relied upon magboots and handholds to stay in contact with the deck.

As they approached the ready room, the bulkhead-rated door slid open before Caine could even touch the courtesy pager. Captain Schoeffel waved them in. “Good shift?” she inquired.

Riordan smiled. “Can’t say. I slept through it.”

Peña shrugged.

Schoeffel returned Caine’s smile after shooting an annoyed glance at Peña. “We’ve finished our first set of scans. No sign of your ride, Commodore.”

Caine raised an eyebrow. “‘Commodore?’ I thought I was ‘Mister’ Riordan.”

She nodded at the closed door. “Benefit of privacy. I figure if we’re going to speak openly about your mission, we can dispense with the civilian labels they wanted to stick on you.”

“That’s very kind, Captain. How can I help you?”

“Well, you can start by telling me what we should be looking for. We’ve already swept the EM spectrum for any sign of a beacon or buoy. Nothing. So either your friends aren’t here yet or they are waiting and watching. Any idea which it is?”

Caine shook his head. “Sorry, not a clue. The invitation was pretty short on details. It wasn’t even clear that they would wait here throughout the entire date range they gave us. And there was nothing about methods of signaling or their likely coordinates.”

Schoeffel frowned. “For a supposed super-race, they don’t seem very organized.”

Riordan shrugged one shoulder. “The Dornaani have their own ways of doing things. And they don’t always clue us in ahead of time.”

Schoeffel waved Caine toward a chair, included Peña in a second gesture that looked a lot like an afterthought. “So when they do show up, what should I expect?”

“Expect the Dornaani ship to be small: tiny, by our standards. The one we’ve seen most frequently is one hundred eighty meters from bow to stern. Widest beam is at the rear: about eighty meters. Best estimates put it at about 130,000 cubic meters.”

“Okay, but how big are their shift-capable hulls?”

Riordan smiled. “Captain, that is a shift hull.”

 “So they’re about fifteen percent as long as we are and ten percent of our volume. And they have longer shift range.”

“I can personally confirm a sixteen light year range. I don’t know if that’s at the top, middle or bottom of their performance spectrum.”

Schoeffel’s features moved past incredulity, approached something akin to terror. “That exceeds the theoretical maximum of any shift drive built according to Wasserman’s paradigms.”

Riordan nodded. “It’s pretty clear they use something else. Transition on them is not like on our ships. Or Arat Kur or Slaasriithi. You don’t feel that dip in your consciousness and then the wave of vertigo as you come back up. It’s as if your awareness is shuddering: like it’s a stone skipping across a pond.”

Schoeffel leaned forward. “Any idea why that is?”

Riordan nodded slowly, using that moment to consider: Schoeffel’s questions were nearing the limit of what she needed to know for the mission. Additionally, Caine had to be careful that his remarks did not raise suspicions that Alnduul and his fellow Custodians had allowed Earth’s experts to discover the secrets behind making deep space shifts. “I heard some of our researchers speculating that, if the Dornaani drive doesn’t use stellar gravity wells to navigate, then its extreme precision could enable a rapid series of micro-shifts, rather than one big jump.”

Schoeffel exhaled. “That could be what causes the shuddering of consciousness: a string of split-second blip in and out of space normal. Damn.” She seemed to stir from a daze. “So, do they even need to preaccelerate?”

“No, but a ‘standing shift’ seems to put lots more wear on their drive. So, they don’t use it much.”

Schoeffel shook her head. “Do the Dornaani have any more magic tricks I should be aware of?”

“Your sensors could have a hard time picking them up. Their hulls are unipiece, streamlined, and evince properties of both thermaflage and chromaflage. Our analysts call it comboflage.”

Schoeffel’s face was stony. “So, the short version is that if they don’t want us to see them, we won’t.”

Caine shrugged. “Anything else, Captain?”

“Not at the moment, Commodore. Except, that I want you on hand when they finally show up, to make sure that everything goes smoothly.”

Anything to keep me heading toward Elena. But what he said was, “I’ll be there, Captain.”