Marque of Caine – Snippet 22

Chapter Fourteen

March, 2124

Second-Five, Zhal Prime (BD +71 482 A)

Ironically, the shift to LP 60-179 marked the end of the most uneventful periods that Riordan had ever spent travelling between the stars.

The transit itself was so subtle that it didn’t even wake him. The star itself, an unremarkable red dwarf, had no features or planets of interest: just a collection of small, sunbaked planetissimals and a single distant gas giant smaller than Neptune. The only redeeming aspect of their visit was that it lasted less than a week.

Riordan was happy to learn that the next system, BD +71 482 A, had a few elements of interest, including a marginally habitable moon orbiting a massive, tidally locked planet with a molten core. He had considered remaining awake for the shift, but a slightly larger than average meal of terrestrial food-stuffs–mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, even a passably prepared brisket–put paid to that idea: post-prandial grogginess triumphed over curiosity. Caine collapsed into his couch-bunk with a sated sigh several hours before transit.

*     *     *  

Riordan awoke to a steady, insistent moan: the Olsloov‘s emergency klaxon. Fighting up through both a cognitive and visual haze, he discovered he was not alone in his compartment. The most unusual of the Dornaani crew, Irzhresht, was there in a posture of readiness. Almost as tall as Caine, she was extremely thin: a byproduct of hundreds of generations of ancestors who had been born in zero-gee. Her longer arms and elongated head hovered urgently over Riordan. “May I assist?” she asked.

Riordan pushed through the mental murk. “I’m–I’ll be fine.”

The Dornaani stepped back, the irregular patterns on her cream-colored skin rippling as she moved. It was simply an optical illusion–her long torso was already subtly striped and mottled–but disconcerting nonetheless. Caine rubbed hard at his eyes. “Why the alarm?”

“Difficulties with landing.” Irzhresht handed Riordan one of the flat, shining circlets that the Dornaani themselves wore when working around the ship. “Put this on. It is calibrated for you.”

Riordan placed the silvery hemi-circle on the crown of his head. When he removed his hand, the minimalist victor’s laurels self-adjusted, snugging to the contours of his skull. “And what should I do with–?”

“Await instructions. Follow me.” Irzhresht exited the compartment’s already opening iris valve. Only two steps behind, Riordan noticed that her skin was becoming darker and that additional markings were becoming visible. Standing out in high relief against the ghostly slate-and-cream camo pattern was a constellation of circles (or planets? or spheres?) arrayed in a shifting dance of fractal variation. The enigmatic semiology had been orchestrated to invoke a common theme, but Riordan could not discern what that might be.

Irzhresht was hurrying aft along the curved passageway. Riordan glanced sideways as they passed a small orange hatch that led to a cluster of escape pods. “Irzhresht, where are we–?”

Alnduul’s voice interrupted–from inside Caine’s head. “Do not disturb Irzhresht unless it is absolutely necessary. She is coordinating a variety of tasks, even as you move. She is bringing you to the ventral interface bay.”

“Why? And how the hell am I hearing your voice inside my head?”

“The control circlet you are wearing stimulates your mastoid process, thereby inducing sound that emerges in your middle ear. This ensures clarity in chaotic audial environments. You are wanted in the bay to provide assistance. There is a problem with our landing.”

“Landing? We’re at the planet already? I never even felt us shift.”

“I am not surprised. You ate a considerable meal. Also, we arrived within twenty planetary diameters of our destination.”

“You mean the moon with the breathable atmosphere?”

“Yes. As per our standard operating procedure, the local port authority was given control for Olsloov’s final approach. That is the problem.”

Irzhresht turned, gestured that Riordan should continue through a large bulkhead door. She continued on. Riordan nodded his thanks, but the spindly Dornaani was already stalking out of sight. Shrugging, Caine approached the door–and almost banged his forehead into it. Unlike the others on Olsloov, it had not opened automatically.

Alnduul sounded like he was situated between Caine’s ears. “Tell it to open.”

“Uh… ‘open,'” Riordan ordered the door.

“Not with words,” Alnduul corrected. “Visualize what you wish it to do. A gesture may help focus your will.”

Riordan pushed past the implausibility of a machine capable of reading his mind, waved the door aside as he imagined it complying.

The door opened. Not far beyond, Alnduul was strapping himself into a unipiece belt-and-backpack unit. Narrow control arms sprouted from its sides, each one ending in a joystick. “Your unit is to the right of the door. Don it.”

Caine removed the device from its rack, wondered if he had ever heard anyone use the word “don” as a verb before, and fought against becoming mesmerized by the other contents of bay. Sleek shuttle-sized craft lined the bulkhead walls, each moored in a hexagonal framework that resembled a reconfigurable geodesic grid. Impossibly small aircars fitted with clear canopies were snugged in smaller but similarly angular webworks. A wide variety of what appeared to be storage units were fixed to the deck, but Riordan could not bring himself to think of them as ‘crates’. Smooth-surfaced orthogonal solids, they looked more like cubist evocations of basic geometric shapes.

“Caine Riordan, greater alacrity, please. Time is short.”

Riordan finished wrestling his way into the strange backpack-belt device, felt the smart straps of the five-point harness cinch tight against his body. Now that he was actually wearing it, the device reminded him of an MMU, or manned maneuver unit. But if this was for propelling oneself in space, then–“Alnduul, if we’re about to go EVA, shouldn’t we put on spacesuits first?”

Alnduul’s extruded mouth seemed to shimmy around its axis; it was like watching a dancing lamprey, head-on. “Your conjecture is reasonable but inaccurate. We will not be operating in vacuum. We are already entering the atmosphere of the moon.” He grasped the hand controls of his unit and floated off the deck. “These are the only means of reaching the planet’s surface.”

Riordan walked behind Alnduul, frowned. “Where’s the thruster, the exhaust? I can’t even feel any heat coming off the unit.”

“That is because there is no exhaust. Hence, no heat.”

Riordan squinted. “Then how does it work?”

“It leverages gravitic forces against themselves.”

Riordan had to tell himself to resume breathing. “Are you saying this is . . . is some kind of anti-gravity device?”

Alnduul’s inner eyelids nictated once. “I am.”

Riordan shook his head at Alnduul’s affirmation, at the device that was keeping the Dornaani half a meter above the deck, at any universe in which physics could be so effortlessly and economically violated. “That’s impossible. You can’t–“

“Caine Riordan, I understand your surprise and your skepticism. Unfortunately, we do not have the time to alleviate either. This moon, Zhal Prime Second-Five, is no longer inhabited, so its port authority systems are automated. They are also malfunctioning. They have failed to recognize Olsloov’s authorization codes. Consequently, the port authority auton will not relinquish control of the helm.”

“And if we don’t correct that–?”

“The port authority will either land the ship and impound it, or it will divert us into a fatal crash.”

Riordan grabbed the hand controls. “So let me guess. This, uh . . . this anti-gravity unit”–I did not just say that –“works the same way as the door: mental instructions.”

“Correct. The control grips and their arms are flexible. Physical feedback can be combined with mental instructions for greater surety and speed of operation. Activate the sensor interface.”


“Command it into operation.”

Riordan visualized the interactive holographs he’d seen on Olsloov‘s bridge. He felt faint movement near his temples. A wire-thin filament extended from either end of the control circlet. The wires illuminated, lowered a glowing curtain of light in front of his eyes which, when fully descended, became a heads-up display. He discovered that, depending upon how he focused his eyes, he could either read it in great detail, or see straight through it, much the way the human eye can change depth of focus to see either the surface of polarized glass or what is behind it. “Okay,” Riordan exhaled. “I guess you’ll talk me through the rest. What’s our job?”

“To either terminate the port authority’s override of our helm controls or to update its registry database. Both of which require physical access.”

“How do we achieve that before the port authority rams us nose-first into a mountain?”

Alnduul stepped closer to the uncluttered deck space at the center of the bay. “The bridge crew has created a cascade of code errors. Once released into Olsloov‘s computer, they will trigger a default to manual control, at least until the port authority auton determines that the error warnings are spurious. Those few seconds are the crew’s only opportunity to land Olsloov atop the most suitable planetary feature in range.”

“So instead of letting the port authority robot crash this ship, your bridge crew is going to crash it themselves?”

Alnduul’s mouth rotated slightly. “Your optimism is inspiring. Once the ship is down, the crew will disable Olsloov‘s computer. You and I will then descend and correct the flaw in the port authority’s automation.”

“How long will it take to reinitiate Olsloov’s computer?”

Alnduul’s stare became somber. “I failed to explain adequately. To ensure that Olsloov’s computer cannot be reaccessed by the port authority auton, the crew must render it physically incapable of restarting. Repairs will require several weeks. Perhaps more. I am sorry, Caine Riordan. There is no other way.”

Caine mentally adjusted the probable duration of his stay in the Collective by adding a few months. He suppressed a sigh, nodded at Alnduul. “Then let’s get going.”

Alnduul walked further out onto the expanse of empty deck. “Command the unit to activate, just enough to suspend you.”

Riordan visualized rising slowly, moved the hand controls slightly upward. His feet lifted off the deck, stopped when they were dangling a third of a meter in mid-air. The only sensation from the anti-gravity unit was a fast, smooth vibration against his back.

Irzhresht’s voice was now inside his head, also. “Alnduul, we are approaching the drift-butte. You must be away from the hull before Olsloov loses power and we begin banking.”

“Acknowledged,” Alnduul answered. “Open the bay for personnel exit.”

A seam appeared in the center of the deck. It widened swiftly, wind howling steadily louder until the aperture was three meters wide and five long. Riordan looked for doors, hinges, retracting panels: there were none. Okay, more magic-tech.

Down below, Riordan saw a lone, strangely flat mountain-top rising into view. “Is that where Olsloov is heading?”