Raising Caine – Snippet 02

Idrem nodded. “This is true. But it is in the nature of inferior species to become distracted and indecisive when confronted by unanticipated and unexplained events. While they investigate and remain at arm’s length from each other, months and years shall pass. That alone will disrupt House Shethkador’s plans and reveal both their incompetence and ill-advised preference for guile over direct action.”

Brenlor expanded the starfield display. “And so, our target is GJ 1230. You will observe that almost all the routes from Sigma Draconis to the Slaasriithi homeworld pass through it.”

Vranut’s frown had not diminished. “You seem to have known ahead of time that the Slaasriithi would invite a human envoy to their homeworld. How? Informers?”

Nezdeh smiled. “No: logic. Once the Aboriginals defeated the Arat Kur, the Slaasriithi would have been fools not to ally with them. This conjecture led us to be watchful for signs that the Slaasriithi were making just such overtures. Those signs were detected and confirmed just before Ferocious Monolith shifted to Sigma Draconis.”

Ulpreln frowned. “How could Ferocious Monolith have learned what had transpired in the Sigma Draconis system before she shifted there? Was there an Awakened on board?”

“No Reification was required to vouchsafe us this information,” Brenlor explained. “Half a day before Monolith shifted out, an Aboriginal craft shifted in near Planet Two. It was an Arat Kur prize they seized during the fleet actions in Sigma Draconis. Our servitors on board the TOCIO shift-carrier already orbiting Planet Two — the Gyananakashu — learned of the Slaasriithi invitation from that prize ship. They relayed the news to us using a trickle code protocol: single, seemingly random signals sent over the course of several hours.” He pointed to GJ 1230. “So, knowing that these envoys are making for Beta Aquilae, we can be relatively certain that we shall intercept them in that system, or one slightly further along their path.”

Idrem deactivated his beltcom. “But we must do so swiftly. Our projection of their path could be in error. Accordingly, we must be ready to leapfrog ahead if we miss their ship in GJ 1230. Now, return to your stations.”

Brenlor’s tone and expression changed as soon as he was alone with Idrem and Nezdeh; he glanced at her sharply. “You should tell them you are capable of Reification. It would increase their confidence in our mission and would boost morale.”

Nezdeh shook her head. “It might also undercut their sense of urgency, of the magnitude of the challenges before us. Besides, I am only recently Awakened and have but two Catalysites remaining. No, it is best that the crew assumes we have no special assets and that we are totally alone. Because, quite frankly, we are. Should we succeed, we shall become the symbol and proof of our patrons’ arguments against the lethargy of the Older Houses. On the other hand, if we do not succeed, we shall be glad that I was never in Reified contact with our patrons and that, therefore, they do not know where to find us.”

Brenlor stared through the bridge windows at the small ruby that was V 1581. “Caution and prudence; prudence and caution. It sorely tasks a warrior to think like a fugitive.”

“It does,” Nezdeh soothed. “It surely does.”

Brenlor stared at her. “I return to my quarters. You have the con, Nezdeh.” He stalked out the hatchway.

Nezdeh glanced at Idrem, thought, between the two of us, we shall be able to manage Brenlor. But she only said, “We work well together, Idrem.”

Idrem stared at her. “It seems so, Nezdeh.”

* * *

Standing at the same viewports after completing their shift six weeks later, Idrem observed that GJ 1230 was an even smaller ruby than V1581 had been.

However, that was merely what the eye could show. GJ1230 was a flare star, and the variations in its luminosity were minimal compared to its sudden tsunamis of radiation. The crew sections of the Aboriginal ship were lined by meter-thick water tankage, sandwiched between a comparatively soft outer hull and an armored inner hull: proof against this star’s maximum REM spikes.

Even so, the Arbitrage remained in the shadow of one of the system’s gas giants, but not due to the hazards of radiation. Rather, it was endeavoring to avoid the dangers of detection.

Because the Slaasriithi ship had arrived at GJ 1230 ahead of them. It was already preaccelerating toward its next shift, a dimming particle trail indicating it had refueled at the same gas giant around which the Ktor were now entering a stealthy, unpowered orbit.

Brenlor glanced at Idrem. “Intercept is impossible, then?”

Idrem nodded. “If we pursued them at maximum acceleration, we would still be many light minutes out of range when they shift again.”

Brenlor’s next question did not rise above a faint grumble. “And how soon until we can commence our refueling operations?”

“Their sensor activity is intermittent and, at this range, weak. We would be relatively safe today, completely safe tomorrow.”

“Then we send out the skimmers tomorrow.” Brenlor turned to examine the nav plot. “We will continue to presume their next shift shall be to AC+20 1463-148, and we shall follow their lead.”

Idrem nodded. “The charts for AC+20 1463-148 indicates that if we arrive in the lee of an outer gas giant, we may remain unseen, even during most of our refueling. We may then shift out ahead of them; the gas giant and the photosphere of the primary will be positioned so as to distort and obscure the signature of our preacceleration.”

“Excellent,” Brenlor decided. “That is our plan, then.”

* * *

But it did not work out that way. Early on their fifth day in the AC+20 1463-148 system, Idrem heard Nezdeh enter the bridge behind him. “You are up early,” she said. Her tone had become more familiar.

“I want to be present the moment these accursed Slaasriithi disappear from our sensors,” Idrem responded, not turning toward her. “We must commence anti-matter production as soon as possible.”

Nezdeh came to stand beside him. “It has been frustrating, being delayed this way.”

Idrem managed not to scoff. Brenlor had been on the bridge when they shifted into the system. He had taken one look at the readouts and stalked off to his quarters: a blip denoting the Slaasriithi ship had loomed unexpectedly large in their sensors. Evidently, its refueling in the previous system had taken much longer than predicted. Consequently, the ship arrived at AC+20 1463-148 later and would be in a position to spot them for much longer. And that meant more delay before the Ktor could jump ahead to GJ 1236.

Brenlor had returned to the bridge, asking about the possibility of changing plans and intercepting the enemy craft in this system. Idrem was at pains to point out that the Arbitrage’s tanks were dry and her anti-matter reserves low. And since the replenishment of those reserves required full output from all the available fusion plants, the skimmers would have to harvest even more hydrogen than usual. Brenlor had stalked back off the bridge. The ensuing five days had not been pleasant.

Nezdeh pointed at the sensors. “A power spike from the Slaasriithi.”

Idrem nodded. “Without question, they are preparing — ”

The radiant energy level peaked asymptotically and then dropped to zero. The green blip disappeared.

Idrem immediately brought the fusion plants on both the Arbitrage and the tug up to full power, leaned over to summon the necessary technicians — fuel processors, flight personnel, bridge staff — to their stations. He stopped when he felt something gentle touch his arm.

Nezdeh’s hand. He looked up from it into her eyes.

“You are a great asset to this House, Idrem Perekmeres.”

“My apologies, but you forget, Nezdeh: I am twice removed from the main geneline. Technically, I am Perekmeresuum.”

“I do not need your correction, Idrem,” she said firmly, but not sternly. “Besides, that distinction is now nonsense. There are so few of our lines left, we must salvage everything we can.” She looked out into space. “In which task you are tireless. Now: get some sleep.”

“I shall. As soon as the second bridge crew reports, I will be returning to my quarters.”

“Your quarters on Lurker, or here on the Arbitrage?”

Idrem was rarely confused, but this question disoriented him. “Eh…here. Does it matter?”

Her gaze was unblinking. “It does. I shall see you. Very soon.”

She turned and left the bridge, with Idrem speechless at the middle of it.

* * *