Marque of Caine – Snippet 24

Chapter Fifteen

March, 2124

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

The Dornaani ship faltered at the last moment, its nose tilting down to port as it kissed the surface of the pond. Steam roiled up from that area as the attitude control thrusters detected the imbalance, fired at maximum, vaporized the water.

The bow didn’t come up fully, but the angle of impact became shallower. Instead of flipping into a massively destructive ass-over-nose cartwheel, Olsloov simply dug into the water. A wall of spray and hot mist fumed outward as she ploughed forward.

Ugly sounds–as if a trash compactor was brawling with a quarry saw–ripped the air as Olsloov bottomed out, dragging its belly across the shallow, rocky bottom. The drooping delta shape shuddered, bucked, then stopped just fifteen meters from the far end of the pond.

Alnduul swung closer to examine the underside of the ship. Caine followed. Olsloov’s once smooth belly was now a battered curve of crumpled metal composites, punctuated by several jagged rents.

“Doesn’t look like we’ll be flying anywhere soon,” Riordan commented.

Alnduul made an impatient tch-ing noise. “Once main power is restored, the smart materials in the hull will reform and seal the worst of the breaches. We shall be able to lift to orbit, albeit slowly and with great care. But complete restoration will require longer repairs, perhaps during our stop-over at BD +66 582. Assuming they still have sufficient facilities.”

Riordan nodded, willed the grav unit to lower him to the ground. The wind was cool and brisk, but his duty suit’s smart fabric and EVA insert combined to keep him comfortable. He looked up at the sun. “I thought this star, BD +71 482 A, was a red dwarf.”

“It has been listed as such in your catalogs.” Alnduul was silent for a moment, seemed to be inspecting a particularly ragged tear in Olsloov‘s hull. “Now that you are here observing it, what would you presume it to be?”

Riordan thought, “Adjust HUD screening to enable safe observation of local star.” The plasma curtain in front of his eyes darkened to a ghostly slate color. “Looks more like a K9 V to me. Still enough to keep Zhal Prime Second tidally locked, even with multiple moons tugging on it.”

Alnduul boosted higher, searching for damage to the hull’s dorsal surface. “Indeed.” He gestured to the left. The large gray and brown planet in question was strangely diaphanous, a ghostly sphere that barely managed to superimpose itself upon the teal sky of this, its fifth and most distant moon. “Fortunately, Second-Five has enough distance and mass to ensure that it is not face-locked to its parent, but rotation is slowed: this moon only revolves six times in the course of its twenty-four day orbit.”

Riordan tried to do the math, then tried to visualize a model, then gave up. “And what does that mean in terms of day and night cycles?”

“A complex pattern, with libration effects creating extended dawns and dusks.”

Riordan looked at the deep orange sun. “So how much daylight do we have?”

“Approximately thirty hours, the last twenty of which will be dangerously dim.”


Alnduul floated down beside Riordan. “The surface has not been visited for almost two centuries. Hazardous biota may have returned to this region. We will find out when we descend.”

Riordan watched the last wisps of steam rise up from under Olsloov. They evaporated almost instantly. “Alnduul, I’m happy to help out, but if I’m too important to risk, then why am I the one going with you?”

Alnduul’s mouth rotated slightly, tightly: wry amusement. “Because there are only two gravitic thruster units on Olsloov. One is part of its allotted equipment. The other is a human model, on loan for your use.” He began walking back to the edge of the drift butte’s topland. “So it was either attempt these missions alone, or with your help.”

Riordan nodded. “I take it that Irzhresht is too slender for it to fit, despite her height?”

“That is only part of what precludes her participation. Extended exertion in a gravity well would gravely damage her health. Her people are a subspecies of the main Dornaani genotype: a ‘low-gee.'” Alnduul slurred it into a single world: “loji.”

Once at the lip of the drift butte, Riordan surveyed the terrain five kilometers below: mostly flat, speckled by lakes. “So where is the port authority complex?”

Alnduul pointed far to the left. “There.”

Riordan squinted, looked for buildings but didn’t see any. However, near a great confluence of lakes and rivers, there seemed to be a distortion which blurred the outlines of the waterways beneath and beyond it, as if they were being seen through an unfocused lens of impossibly strange shape.

The clouds moved. Dark amber light fell directly on that stretch of land–and then glinted in an impossible mid-air arc.

“What the–?” Riordan murmured before thinking to use the circlet. “Twenty times magnification on central object.” The curve of light enlarged, limning a ghostly arch which grew until it loomed impossibly large and graceful. “It that a structure?”

“It is,” Alnduul replied.

“And it’s transparent? Like glass?”

“More perfectly transparent than glass, but yes. It is a marker and also a piezo-electric receiver, when need be.”

Riordan measured the gold-gleaming hemi circle with the magnifying center of his plasma-HUD. “That must be–what? Three kilometers high?”

“Slightly more.”

“And is it part of the port?”

“No. It is an outlying facility and navigation landmark. We shall go there first. It is a comparatively safe point from which we may observe the port-authority complex and assess its conditions.”

Riordan saw white, sinuous aviforms wheeling closely around the arch, possibly attracted by its glow. Although the peak of its rim was barely half as high as their current perch, the idea of standing on that smooth, probably frictionless curve sent a pulse of height-panic up Riordan’s calves. He forced his question to sound casual: “So, we’re just going to fly over there and take a look?”

Alnduul’s voice may have been somewhat amused. “Whenever you are ready.”

*     *     *

Riordan found it difficult to trust his eyes during what felt like the slow-motion fall toward the arch of glass. As reflections of sky and sun vied with the view through to the terrain below, his eyes kept shifting between different depths of focus. To compensate, he instructed his HUD to outline and graph the arch. Faint, glowing lime-green lines transmogrified the ghostly structure into a grid work: much easier to keep track of its dimensions and shape, that way.

Slowing as he drifted toward the peak of the arch, the cream-white aviforms rose up higher along its arms. Each snake-like body had a pair of large, membranous wings, with smaller auxiliary flaps near its pointed nose (canards?) and a bifurcated tail (horizontal stabilizers?). They were predominantly gliders, catching updrafts rather than working their wings.

However, Riordan could not detect any sense organs or orifices. As his feet settled carefully on what now felt and looked like a perfectly flat plane of glass, he asked Alnduul, “Those snake-gliders: how do they see? Or eat?”

The Dornaani landed beside him with a nonchalance that suggested long years of familiarity with the grav unit. “The datafile I perused indicates that their alimentary orifices are all located on the anterior surface. Much akin to the design of your home planet’s ocean rays, if I recall correctly. Their complex eyes are located to either side of their mouth, as are their audial receptors.”

Riordan watched one the serpentine avians circle the arms of the arch in a nimble, twisting arabesque. A row of tan spots ran in twin tracks from its nose to the area just behind its rearmost canards. He commanded the HUD to capture the image and send it to Alnduul. “Primitive eyes, do you think? Defensive light sensors?”

Alnduul studied it for a moment. “Quite likely. However, the datafile defines these as the largest aviforms on the planet, without predators. In the air, that is.”

“And on the ground?”

“They are at the mercy of many creatures, including the adult forms of their own species.”

“They ultimately become ground-dwellers?”

Alnduul raised an affirming finger. “When they attain breeding age, they build a cocoon. They emerge with fully developed sex organs and with legs rather than wings.”

Riordan studied another of the snake-gliders. Its wings were too flexible to have a rigid bone structure. Something more akin to cartilage, probably. “It doesn’t look as though those wings could ever develop into limbs.”

“They do not. They wither and are absorbed by the organism during its quasi-chrysalis stage. Note, however, the two pairs of prehensile manipulators they keep against their bodies as they fly. Those are the appendages that evolve into limbs.”