Marque of Caine – Snippet 25

Riordan waited for one of the snake-gliders to roll over and was rewarded with a glimpse of the manipulators. They were reminiscent of a shark’s claspers, except they were longer and stronger. That was also when he saw one of their mouths: a constantly active maw in which heavy shearing teeth gnawed at the air. Caine reconsidered the creatures: no longer just intriguing and beautiful, they were now a swarm of potential killers, as well. “I take it they are carnivorous.”

“They are said to be indiscriminate hunters,” Alnduul confirmed. “If a ground animal is no larger than they are, they will attack it.”

Okay, so not potential killers; proven killers. “And if they come after us–?”

“You employ the lasers with which you drew the ground batteries’ fire. It is unlikely the beams will kill the creatures, but the resulting wound should chase them off.”

Should chase them off?”

Alnduul’s inner lid nictated lazily. “There are no certainties when it comes to the behavior of fauna, Caine Riordan.”

Caine looked down, discerned a paved square about two kilometers to the left of their position. “Is that the port-authority complex?”


“It looks pretty overgrown.”

“Evidently the automated tenders have failed.”

Riordan zoomed in on the square. A low-set building dominated its far end, overgrown with vines half a meter thick. “So what’s the plan?”

“We must presume that the vegetation on the roof obstructs any means of ingress there. So we must use the entrance that faces the paved area. We shall descend to the far edge of the square, inspect it for automated defenses, disarm or disable them, breach the doors, make our way to the computing core. At that point, it will either accept an update or we will have to disable the facility.”

Riordan studied the square more carefully. “Is the square protected by an aerial defense envelope?”

“Yes, out to its far end. However, if we land before reaching it, we will not be attacked.”

“And the ground defenses?”

Alnduul’s mouth twisted slightly further. “The air and ground defenses are provided by the same units. Engaging them can be delayed, but not avoided. Are you prepared?”

Riordan took in the strange landscape of scattered lakes, of the rust and bright green vegetation that wound among them, all of which faded into a hazy horizon. The unearthly vista was not just compelling: it might also be the last he’d ever see. If it wasn’t for alternating memories of Elena’s sleeping face, and Connor’s eager, hopeful one, he might just have told Alnduul to put him back in cold sleep until some other ship came along and used its weapons to flatten the port authority. Flying into unscouted terrain to enter an unknown structure, both of which might be populated by hostile biota and automata, was not Caine’s idea of a prudent tactical solution. But unless he wanted to lengthen an already over-long journey . . .

Caine brought his chin up. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

Chapter Sixteen

March, 2124

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

The descent to the square was uneventful. However, when Riordan ordered the HUD to display nearby bio signatures, the result was an unreadable litter of data. He restricted the scan to a footprint centered on the square and two times its dimensions, filtering out everything with a signature smaller than a child.

It was still a mess. Evidently a lot of creatures dwelt in, or lurked near, the port authority. Some contacts disappeared and reappeared without warning: creatures moving through dense brush or into and out of burrows. It wasn’t quite as bad as going in blind, but it wasn’t a whole lot better.

As Caine and Alnduul floated down through five hundred meters altitude, perimeter markers became visible. They were stelae of some kind, sigils scored into their angled surfaces. And still, despite the churning biosigns on his sensors, Riordan could not see any movement.

That was totally unacceptable. “Orange tag life-signs moving to intercept Riordan or Alnduul. Double tag any which doubles its movement rate within any three second sampling interval.” Riordan hoped that would give them enough warning. And, while on the topic of warnings: “Show remaining power. Show average power consumption. Show power consumption per single laser discharge.”

 The resulting data was not promising. Riordan called Alnduul’s attention to the speed with which the lasers would drain their remaining power.

Several seconds passed before the Dornaani replied. “I can fire ten times and retain a sufficient power margin to reascend to the drift-butte. Your more aggressive maneuvers have reduced you to eight safe discharges. Logically, then–“

“–I should land first and lead the way.” Riordan grimaced, mostly because it made inarguable sense. Alnduul had more firepower left, was accomplished using weapons via the control circlet, and so, could better maintain a base of fire to cover Riordan. Obversely, Riordan was the logical point-man for a quick charge to the control building. Human legs were longer and cycled faster than Dornaani’s.

Details of the square’s seamed gray surface became visible. Weathering had cracked it with crevices, most exploited by smaller versions of the vines that sat atop the port authority complex like a knotted wig. Caine pushed his hands out, slowing his approach until his feet came to rest softly on the bordering lichen. “I’m down,” he muttered.

Alnduul was hovering five meters behind him. “I will overwatch as you cross to the facility. I have a clear field of fire and am too high to be engaged by any adversaries on the ground.”

That sounded entirely too confident to Riordan. “Even so, keep an eye on your flanks.” He made sure his unit’s lasers were set to fire alternately rather than together, and stepped onto the square.

Nothing happened.

So, instead of sprinting and calling attention to myself, I think I’ll take a nice, leisurely walk. Trusting that this planet’s creatures would lack the olfactory context to correctly interpret the fight/flight scents he was emitting, Caine began strolling to the port authority building.

The scrub on the left edge of the square rustled briefly. Riordan swiveled his left laser in that direction, discovered that the associated biosign was not charging him, but moving rapidly away. A droplet of sweat crept out of his right armpit, then sped down along his ribs, trailing cold wetness.

Ten meters further on, his HUD’s motion detector flagged something approaching from above, and behind. “Alnduul–“

“I have seen it. Avians. Do not stop. I shall interdict them.”

Riordan continued to walk, heard the faint hum of Alnduul’s laser. His HUD showed two of the aviforms falling, tumbling, trying to pull up. One was able to straighten out just before it collapsed–and senseless, slammed down into the square, twenty meters ahead of Caine.

Who stopped. Checked his HUD again. All the movement at the edges of the square had come to a complete halt.

And then went wild.

Two creatures, about the size of mastiffs but built like small boars, lunged out of the drooping ferns closest to the stricken snake–glider and pounced on it. Discovering themselves to be competing for the same meal, their hides rose up into masses of writhing polyps just before they fell upon each other with warbling shrieks: incongruously high-pitched, given how heavily muscled they were.

A mature snake-glider–now a wingless, eyeless cross between a torpedo and a Komodo dragon–burst out of a heavy tangle of vines and slither-scrambled across the plaza toward the melee. It stopped abruptly, its “head” swiveling toward Riordan. From every other point of the compass, smaller signatures were emerging as well, some fleeing, some chasing, all agitated.

Riordan managed not to move. “Alnduul–“

“Caine Riordan, I know that on Earth, becoming motionless often stops the attack of territorial creatures–“

“That’s why I froze.”

“I know. But no such behavior exists on this planet.”

Shit. The slate and cream Komodo torpedo was starting to move again: straight at Caine. Its nose rolled up and back–how does it do that?–revealing two rows of impressive teeth in its almost round mouth. Its over-ground speed was even more impressive.

Since his lasers were too weak to kill it, Riordan pushed up and forward with his arms. The grav thruster shot him over the Komodo torpedo, which coiled into an upward leap with surprising speed and agility.

The jaws snapped behind Riordan as he stretched his legs out to land, ordering: “Target proximal creature to rear. Fire twice at the mouth,”–an orange flicker warned him that the system was uncertain of success–“or closest ventral area.” Just as Caine began leaning away from the forward momentum at the end of his grav hop, he heard two-tap hums; one from the right laser, the other from the left.