Marque of Caine – Snippet 26

Riordan landed into the first long stride of his sprint toward the complex. Creatures approached from either side: Alnduul hit the leaders. Most of the others skittered to a halt, fighting over the soon-to-be-carcasses of the ones felled by the covering laser fire. But others swerved after Riordan.

Too many to shoot. No time to stop, turn, and give his lasers a stable firing platform. The only alternative was–“Twenty meter leap. Decelerate before landing.”

He left the ground, three mastiff-boars gaping upward as he passed over them. He turned in mid-air, mentally tagged his three closest pursuers: “One discharge each. Target closest leg.”

Alnduul’s uncharacteristically urgent exclamation, almost a shout, was loud in his head. “Caine, you must not leave the ground!”

Oh, shit.

–His backpack-mounted lasers hummed. Two of the three creatures went down and were swarmed. The third persisted with a broken stride–

If I’ve triggered the perimeter defenses–

As Riordan rotated back around to land, the HUD painted five bright orange icons on the square, two behind him, three in front. Those parts of the plaza seemed to be unscrewing themselves upward. Each became a low, round protrusion which then unfolded into a hexapedal robot. They began turning toward him, the HUD painting them with the orange symbol that warned of an energy spike.

Building, but not quite ready to unleash–whatever. Which meant that Riordan, for the first and probably last time in this chaotic melee, had about half a second to get a glimpse of the bigger tactical picture.

Alnduul had landed and was making good progress. Instead of running, he was almost skating forward, fine-tuning the grav unit so that he flew mere centimeters above the ground, using his feet to change his vector and slalom around the creatures swarming towards him. Plummeting down to attack from the rear were a flock of the snake-gliders: five of them, and diving fast. Some of the earth-bound creatures were still fixated on Caine, but many were reacting to the crablike bots that had risen up from the plaza. For every animal that now hissed, spat, or leapt at the machines, two fled the strange smells and sounds.

In short, the tactical picture was a tableau of utter chaos. With the exception of Alnduul and him, almost every creature was poised to happily kill any other. There was no predicting the actions of any of them. Except–

Riordan estimated the range and speed of the diving snake-gliders, queried the circlet: “Are the defense bots known models?”

The circlet pulsed in the affirmative.

“Is bot targeting prioritized to engage the most dangerous or the most proximal threats?”

Another of the Komodo torpedoes erupted from the nearest brush line. It stomped one of the polyp-covered mastiff-boars and bit a deep chunk out of its notochord before flowing like a belly-greased snake toward Riordan. Two more of mastiff-boars, pelts writhing in agitation, were bearing down on him from the other direction, fang-lined mouths agape.

The circlet answered in his head and on the HUD. “Threat robot prioritizes proximity targets–“

Riordan shouted as well as thought: “Vertical! Maximum speed!”

Riordan shot upward like a rocket, felt his liver and stomach mash down into his intestines, heard jaws snap shut where his body had been a fraction of a second before, waited until he reached two hundred meters, then thought: “Gradual stop.”

Alnduul, who continued to skate around threats, shooting only when necessary, sounded dismayed. “Caine Riordan! At that altitude–“

“–I’m safe. For the moment. Get up here. Now.”


“Just do it!”

Alnduul complied, expertly accelerating into a smooth, steepening parabola. The snake-gliders screamed frustration as he went up through their formation, swooped around, tried to gain altitude for pursuit, flapped their wings strenuously.

One of them exploded in mid-air.

“What–?” started Alnduul.

“The bots identify them as airborne threats, and they are now more proximal than we are,” Caine explained. Another of the avians blew apart, raining chunks down upon the plaza. The rearmost of them was taken through the wing by a rocket, which exploded just a meter further on. Whether by virtue of concussion or fragments, the snake-glider flapped backward, went limp, tumbled down–and was immediately set upon.

As the defense bots continued to demonstrate their lethality, the various creatures that had streamed on to the plaza–either to scavenge from bodies or bring down new ones–fled back into the bush with even greater alacrity. Oblivious, the bots targeted the last of the avians.

Alnduul dove straight down. “Do as I do,” he instructed, sending the feed from his HUD to Riordan’s. “We can degrade the robots while they are focused on the remaining avians.”

Alnduul pulled out of his dive at only two meters altitude, heading straight at the rearmost bot. Staying just ahead of its attempt to switch targeting to him, Alnduul swept around the machine on a flat but low course: too predictable, so far as Caine was concerned.

But in a moment, the reason for Alnduul’s maneuver became apparent: just before he swept all the way around to the front of the bot, one of his lasers pulsed. Sparks showered from a top-mounted cluster nestled under an armored disk: the bot’s sensors. The machine moved erratically, then steadied, but its new movements were less fluid.

Riordan dove to follow Alnduul’s example, deciphered what he’d seen as the ground rushed up at him. The bot had been blinded by the laser, but had quickly patched into its mates’ sensor feed in order to keep moving and attacking. As Caine reached the end of his own dive, he leveled off, shot low and fast toward a new bot, instructing his circlet: “Target sensor cluster.” A yellow warning light signaled the circlet’s inability to comply. Itwent out the moment Riordan ordered: “Execute autonomous approach and attack.”

The circlet took over. Suddenly, Riordan was being steered around the bot in a tight, hard loop. His laser pulsed. The bot staggered as if drunk.

The other bots still categorized the flying predators as priority targets and fired rockets as the last two dove after Riordan and Alnduul. The warheads exploded in a long, rippling volley; Caine’s HUD was suddenly free of flying threats. But now he and Alnduul were the only objects not rooted to the ground, and that, along with their proximity, made them the new primary targets.

Riordan and Alnduul stayed low and sped for the port-authority complex. They swept around the corner of the squat building just before the bots fired again. With the predictable determination of automatons operating without the guidance of a more sophisticated computer, they stolidly followed the path of their prey’s retreat. At the edge of the square, they began picking and stumbling their way into the tangle of vines, creepers, brush, and ferns separating them from their two targets.

By that time, Alnduul had ordered Irzhresht to fetch, properly position, and activate Olsloov‘s largest portable sensor. Although individual biosigns had proven too faint to detect at that range, the Dornaani array easily locked on to the remaining bots’ emissions and tracked their stiff movements. Increasingly isolated from each other and unable to anticipate the dead-ends ahead of them, they proved particularly susceptible to two time-honored military axioms. First, divide to conquer. Then, defeat in detail.

Putting these axioms into practice, Caine cruised close enough to get the most distant bot’s attention. When Irzhresht’s sensor array confirmed that the bot was pursuing and so, was drawing away from the others, Alnduul swept into its blind spot and took out its sensor cluster.

Ten minutes after the human and Dornaani had taken cover behind the overgrown port-authority complex, they stood before it, the plaza behind littered with casualties both biological and mechanical. Riordan breathed deeply, smelled a rank sourness, recognized it as the product of multiple tides of fear-sweat that had soaked him since he had bailed out of Olsloov less than two hours ago. He looked over at Alnduul. “Tell me that whatever comes next is the easy part. Please.”

Alnduul’s outer eyelids closed and then opened very slowly: usually a sign of sympathy or sorrow. “Yes. What comes next is easier. But arguably, less pleasant.”

Caine frowned. “What? Why?”

Alnduul might have sighed–right before the world faded into gray nothingness.