Marque of Caine – Snippet 23

“Yes,” Alnduul answered, walking to the forward edge of the aperture. “We must not be on board when Olsloov attempts to land. My crew’s attempt to terminate the port authority override could easily fail.”

“Wait: if they’re at such high risk, then we can’t just abandon–“

“Caine Riordan.” Alnduul had turned his wide eyes upon Riordan. “Your courage and loyalty is appreciated, but I cannot risk your demise. Not only are you my friend, you are my official responsibility. The Senior Arbiters have ordered me to prevent any and all hazards to your person.” He turned toward the hurricane-howling slot in the deck. “Stand by me. Jump after I do. Do not re-ascend, even if you have tumbled and are falling. You must dive swiftly until you are clear of the Olsloov. Then follow where I fly.”

“But the wind velocity will–“

Alnduul stepped beyond the leading edge of the aperture, disappeared down and to the rear in a sickening rush. He was either too far behind, or too distant to see, within the space of a single second.

“You must jump, Caine Riordan. Not step: jump.” Because of the mastoid transducer, Alnduul’s voice was clear over the shrieking wind.

Riordan made himself stop thinking; he leaped forward.

The wind snared his legs, yanked him backward into an abrupt, bone-jarring tumble. The underside of Olsloov‘s stern jumped toward his face. He ducked, pushed down hard with the hand controls, his arms extending in a desperate stretch toward the ground.

Olsloov shrieked over and past. Caine straightened into a nose dive toward lake-mottled flatlands. Despite his speed, the wind which pinned the rippling duty-suit against him was mild upon his face: the virtual heads-up display was not merely made of light, but some kind of resistive plasma field. Magic layered upon magic.

Time to reorient and find Alnduul. Riordan pushed the up-rushing ground away from him. But too hastily: he snapped into a hover, intestines ramming up against his stomach. He clenched his esophagus against a rush of vomit.

“Be careful,” Alnduul’s voice urged. “The unit’s hazard overrides are suspended. It will obey your commands without regard to your ability to survive them.”

“Isn’t that kind of dangerous?”

“It is, but we must have complete control. We do not know what threats we might face, or how fast they might arise.”

“So I learn on the job or die.”

“Those are the circumstances the crisis has forced upon us. Despite the orders of the Arbiters.”

Riordan started scanning the wide sky for Alnduul–and quick as the desire to locate him arose, a small violet dot appeared on his virtual HUD, pulsing softly.

Hmm… let’s see what else it can do. “Set tracking guidon on Alnduul.” Again, as quick as thought, the dot turned into a small red reticle. “Designate as friend.” The reticle turned aqua.

Well, okay then . . . “Locate and track Olsloov.” Another, slightly larger reticle appeared at the lower edge of Riordan’s HUD. “Plot and execute rendezvous with Alnduul.” The hum of the grav unit increased, sent him zipping briskly toward a point slightly ahead of the smaller aqua reticle. Caine considered, then added: “Incorporate randomized evasion.” His vector became a stomach-knotting cascade of dips, jumps, veers.

Alnduul’s voice sounded both approving and worried. “You are adapting well to the control circlet, but be selective in your commands. New users can endanger themselves by attempting to manage too much.”

“Just like our systems,” Riordan answered. “So, are you heading for that mountaintop?”

“I am. But it is not a mountaintop.”

Riordan frowned, studied it more closely as his vantage point changed and discovered that the strange, column-shaped peak was not part of a mountain.

It was suspended in midair. Unable to speak, Caine stared in disbelief.

Yet there it was: a floating spike of stone, more than a kilometer long, capped by vegetation and small pools of greenish water that reflected the hazy vermillion sun. “Alnduul, what the hell is–?”

“It is a protected artifact of the prior epoch. I will share more later. Right now, we must accelerate our approach; Olsloov is about to trigger the system failure.”

Riordan demanded greater speed: the gravitic thrust unit complied, but without discontinuing the evasive maneuvers. Now, each dodge and jink pulled painfully at his organs, joints, tendons. “End evasive maneuvers.”

The unit’s vector became as steady and smooth as its sharply diminished hum. Caine tilted over into a steep dive toward the top of the floating butte. For the first time since leaping out of the Olsloov‘s belly, he had a moment to think. If the Dornaani have this kind of technology at their disposal, then–

Irzhresht’s voice was not merely calm; she sounded bored. “Engaging failure codes.”

Far below, Olsloov’s orange-glinting delta shape seemed to shake, then skitter sideways into an imminent tumble–from which it immediately righted itself.

“Computer disabled,” Irzhresht continued. “Commencing landing sequence.”

Olsloov heeled hard to port, rolling through forty-five degrees. The hull shuddered beneath the high-speed buffeting as its leading edges and lifting surfaces bit hard against the air. It banked sharply toward the stone spike’s largest lake.

Riordan’s intercept vector changed to match Alnduul’s. “How is Olsloov maneuvering without power?”

“It has standard flaps, but drag management is mostly handled by smart-hull recontouring.”

Riordan watched the ship continue to shudder. One significant downdraft could drive it into the stony flanks of the spike–

The top margin of Caine’s HUD pulsed a bright orange: the color that Dornaani used to signify danger.

“Identify threat,” Riordan thought at the circlet. It painted a throbbing orange vector that rose up from the ground and pointed at Olsloov like an accusing finger. “Ground emissions detected. Active sensors consistent with targeting array,” the circlet explained.

Damn it. If Olsloov evades, it can’t land. But if it doesn’t evade, it’s a sitting duck. Unless . . .

Riordan jammed his arms outward, toward the source of the narrowing sensor emanations. “Wave ride to source, no evasion,” he ordered the circlet. “Engage active sensors. Acquire reciprocal lock on point of emanation.”

As Caine’s steep, accelerating dive turned the thready thunder of the wind into a ululating howl, Alnduul’s panicked voice was loud in his head. “Caine Riordan, terminate your active sensors at once! The ground array will detect you, aim along your own emissions–“

“That’s the idea, Alnduul. Is Olsloov still in enemy target lock?”

A pause. “No. Enemy sensors are shifting to you.”

“And if you joined me, there’d be two targets behaving more aggressively than Olsloov.”


In Riordan’s HUD, the orange targeting beam that was swivelling around to spear him split in two. The new one roved after the aqua reticle that signified Alnduul. The flanks of the floating butte sped past, several kilometers to Riordan’s left.

“Caine Riordan, if we wait too long–“

“Are the air defenses projectile or beam?”

“At this altitude, projectile. Atmospheric diffusion erodes laser effec–“

Ignoring the rest, Riordan widened his HUD’s focus but kept the display centered on the targeting beam’s origin point. “Activate weapons,” he ordered.

“On-board lasers ineffective at this range,” the circlet informed him.

“Understood. Activate weapons. Target sensor source. Fire when lock is acquired. Maintain target lock. Scan for energy spike within larger footprint.”

From either shoulder of the backpack, a broken sputter of crackling flashes reached down toward the ground. They died out within three hundred meters. Riordan kept his groundward plunge between the two targeting vectors, caught a fleeting whiff of ozone: the remains of the air vaporized by his own lasers. Caine wrapped his hands more tightly around the handgrips, forced himself to watch the whole HUD at once.

Three kilometers to the right of the targeting sensors, a painfully bright orange glare flashed at him like a malevolent eye opening. “Power spike–” began the command circlet.

“Terminate active sensors!” Riordan yanked the grav unit’s handgrips to the left, felt his organs crush sideways as both the HUD and the circlet’s voice finished telling him what he already knew: the energy spike was consistent with a railgun discharge. “Incoming!” he shouted at Alnduul. The Dornaani was already arcing away in the opposite direction.

Riordan’s own tight turn reached ninety degrees. The tapering base of the floating butte loomed in front of him, less than six kilometers away. He aimed his outstretched arms at it, pulling out of the turn as he called for maximum acceleration–

Two bolts of fire ripped through the air less than a hundred meters behind, double thunder crashes and shock waves tumbling him. “Straighten and resume course,” Riordan ordered both mentally and aloud, even as the grav thrusters whined and rattled in an automated attempt to do just that. The unit lurched, spun, adjusted, shot further away from the ground. Riordan vomited as he soared upward into the shadow of the floating butte.

Down below, two more jets of fire–the atmospheric combustion tracks left behind by railgun-launched hypersonic warheads– reached up toward him . . . and then ended in twin explosions, a kilometer beneath his feet.

Alnduul had moved so that, like Caine, the floating pylon of rock was now between him and the ground battery. “Caine Riordan, are you injured?”

Caine’s guts felt as if they had been spun in a centrifuge. “Don’t know. Don’t think so.” To the unit: “Climb, remaining behind shielding face of floating rock. Move to position two hundred meters above center of the rock and hold relative position.”

As the grav pack carried him to the designated spot, Alnduul’s voice reproved, “That maneuver was foolish, Caine Riordan. Brave, but foolish.”

“Was it?” Riordan grunted, a dull ache persisting in the vicinity of his liver. “You said this, uh, drift butte was a protected object. Seemed unlikely that your ground batteries would be authorized to conduct fire missions which might strike it.”

 “Logical. Yet still, only a guess.”

Riordan rose up beyond the sharply cleaved sides of the floating spike, scanned its top; thorny black bushes and swards of red lichen rolled away toward sky-blue fronds waving in the high-altitude winds. “Sometimes, guesses are all we humans have to act upon,” he muttered.

To his right, Olsloov, half flying and half falling, eked its way over the stony lip of the topland, wobbled down toward the largest of the mirror-green ponds. On his left, Alnduul rose into view, accelerating after his stricken ship. “As your saying has it,” the Dornaani conceded, “there are the quick and the dead. But in the future, I exhort you to temper your adherence to that axiom.”


“By obeying another human axiom: ‘make haste slowly.'”

Ironically, that was the moment Alnduul doubled his speed to get ahead of the belly-falling Olsloov.