Raising Caine – Snippet 03
Brenlor tapped one finger against his bicep as, ten days later, the Arbitrage approached the shift point to their next destination: system GJ 1236. “All systems nominal?”
“Yes, Evolved,” answered Ayana Tagawa, whom they had trained as the second pilot for the Arbitrage. She had good basic skills and very high inherent aptitudes. “Terminal preacceleration energy state has been attained.”
Nezdeh noted the lack of affect in her voice. Brenlor thought she had become the most compliant of all the Aboriginals. Nezdeh wondered if her constrained demeanor and minimal expressions and speech might not indicate the exact opposite.
Brenlor nodded to Ulpreln. “Deactivate the space-normal helm. Tagawa, you are dismissed. Go with the guard.” One of the two dozen Optigene paramilitary clones that they had wakened from cold sleep took a step toward her, waited. She nodded to the Evolved on the bridge and exited with the slow dignity that was her wont.
“Ulpreln, is the shift-drive charged?”
The universe seemed to flutter unpleasantly, as though consciousness threatened to blink off, and every muscle in Nezdeh’s body was preparing to spasmâ€¦And then it was over.
“Sensors, confirm destination,” Brenlor ordered.
The Aboriginal crewman glanced at his instruments. “Stellar type: M3 dwarf, main sequence. Emission bands match target star precisely. Stellar field parallax assessment confirms we are in system GJ 1236.”
“262 light seconds from the primary, absolute bearing of 167 by 14.”
“Position of nearest planet and target planet?”
“Nearest planet: small gas giant, absolute bearing 187 by 3, 293 light seconds from the primaryâ€¦”
So a bit behind us on the port quarter —
“â€¦Target planet: absolute bearing 84 by 2, 99 light seconds from the primary.”
Brenlor turned to Ulpreln. “Plot course for the gas giant. Second sensor operator: contact report.”
“No proximal contacts. Several structures in orbit around the target planet. Two, possibly three, sensors in orbit around the gas giant. Very small. Unpowered.”
“Time to refuel?”
“Five days, presuming typical meteorological patterns.”
Brenlor turned from the forward view ports, drew closer to Nezdeh. “You have confidence in Idrem’s estimate?”
“That we may be able to refuel before the Slaasriithi arrive? Yes. Their shorter range compelled them to shift to another system — GJ 1232 — before they were able to continue on to this one. But remember Idrem’s caveat: GJ 1232 is reserved for Slaasriithi use. It is unlikely but possible that they have a fuel depot here.”
“And so, they could be here in half the time we expect,” Brenlor concluded sourly. He moved to the hatchway and ducked under the coaming as if dodging the possibility that, once again, his quarry might unwittingly frustrate his plans.
* * *
Except the Slaasriithi arrived in much less time, Nezdeh thought forty hours later, recalling and amending her prior cautionary caveat.
Idrem was on hand, having heard the news of the Slaasriithi’s appearance near the other gas giant halfway across the system. And, she realized with a start, her gaze kept returning to Idrem’s broad back.
She wrenched her eyes away. Tender sentiments were vulnerabilities, even among those who had become intimate. Many of the Progenitors had authored axioms warning against them, and she had always heeded them. But now —
When Brenlor entered the bridge, the Aboriginals and Evolveds all straightened in unison. He looked directly at Idrem. “Do we have a reasonable chance of making a stealthy approach to the target?”
Idrem shook his head. “Even if we court the shadows of the other planets and the primary, and coast on battery power when we are not concealed, we will not reach them unobserved before they commence preacceleration.”
Brenlor stalked to the front view ports. He was silent for several moments, looking toward the primary. “Apparently they had access to a fuel depot at GJ 1232.”
Nezdeh was surprised by how calm he sounded. “Almost certainly.”
Brenlor nodded. “Can we continue our own refueling?”
“Slowly,” answered Idrem, “and only when this gas giant is between us and them.”
“So, when we have finished refueling, they will still require four to five days of further preacceleration, correct?”
“And from that same moment, we too require approximately four and a half days of preacceleration also, yes?”
Idrem nodded. “Yes. So we could be shifting within hours of each other.”
Brenlor actually smiled. “Very suspenseful.” His smile widened. “I like that.”
* * *
Nezdeh glanced at the mission clock located between the two forward view ports: the Arbitrage was in the last thirty seconds of the countdown to her own transit to the system Aboriginals labeled GJ 1248.
As the bridge crew finished calling out the readiness marks, Brenlor leaned forward eagerly: “Engage!” Nezdeh’s stomach sunk as the world shimmered at the edge of annihilation and then, just as speedily, reasserted — but with a new starfield peering in at them through the view ports. “Sensors, report: proximal contacts?”
A tense second before the Aboriginal reported. “No proximal contacts.”
“Expand passive scan footprint. Report all contacts. Ulpreln, shift accuracy?”
“Within eighteen light seconds of the target gas giant, Brenlor. We are behind it, but are situated to rise into clear line-of-sight for observation of the main planet in orbit one.”
Perfect, Nezdeh thought. Now if only —
The oddly strident Aboriginal klaxons began hooting over the senior sensor operator’s report: “Asymptotic energy spike sixteen light seconds out from the main planet.” At the same moment, the green blip denoting the Slaasriithi shift carrier appeared in the navplot.
Nezdeh frowned. They shifted in next to the main planet? Logically, that must mean —
“They have a base at that world, or some other fueling facility,” Brenlor announced quietly. “Sensors, any orbital facilities?”
“Unable to confirm at this range.”
Brenlor thought for a moment. “Sensors, narrow sweep of target planet: inferential spectroscopic analysis of atmosphere. Also, maximum enhanced image.”
The sensor operator’s compliance was swift. “Spectroscopic analysis returns high confidence of oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. Image confirms that the planet is gravitationally locked in a one-to-one resonance with the primary, and that it has a habitable band following the approximate terminator line.”
Brenlor leaned back, resigned. “This is precisely the kind of planet that the Slaasriithi would develop. And so, would probably construct a fuel depot.” He shook his head. “We will not be able to surprise them.”
Ulpreln looked sideways at his commander. “But if we do not intercept them here –”
Brenlor nodded. “Yes, I know: they can reach Beta Aquilae in one shift. And so our chase is over and we have failed.”
Nezdeh glanced back over the screens which displayed the Slaasriithi’s prior path. “They might not shift directly to Beta Aquilae, though.” Seeing Brenlor’s surprised stare, she added, “I have no concrete evidence for my speculation; it is pure conjecture.”
Brenlor folded his arms. “Your speculative insights have often been correct, Nezdeh. For the good of our House, employ that skill now.”
“Very well. We know the Slaasriithi are, of all the species of the Accord, the ones most deeply involved in biological development. And we know that they have made all haste to arrive at this place. Yet, look at their progress toward the main planet” — she gestured at the navplot — “an unusually slow pace, almost casual.”
Ulpreln frowned. “And what do you infer from that?”
“That they are in no hurry to get to the fuel there because they are in no hurry to move onward. Not this time. I suspect they mean to visit the surface of this world, possibly to acclimatize the humans to their biota.”
Brenlor nodded. “By pausing here, do you think they will become vulnerable to attack?”
Nezdeh shook her head. “Probably not. But they are giving us the opportunity to refuel and shift much sooner than they do.”
“Are you suggesting that we precede them into their home system and ambush them there?”
“No. That would be utter and immediate suicide. But there is also the possibility that this world is only the first stage in their acclimatization of the Aboriginals. If it is, they might shift here, first.” She extended her finger toward the navplot, put her finger on the orange speck that denoted BD +02 4076. “Their own self-reference indicates that they have been transforming this world for at least eight hundred years. Logically, it might be an intermediary acclimatizing step between this newly shaped world” — she nodded outward toward the unseen planet in this system — “and Beta Aquilae itself. Consequently, if we cannot intercept them here, we might have an opportunity to ambush them in BD +02 4076.”
Brenlor squinted up into the glittering star map. “And if they do not detour there at all, but go on directly to Beta Aquilae?”
“Then we have lost nothing that is not already lost at this moment.”
Brenlor nodded. “Then we shall refuel and watch. And wait.”