Raising Caine – Snippet 06

Chapter Seventeen

In transit; GJ 1248’s inner system

Two days later, once Riordan and the rest of the legation had gathered for their first collective meal in the overcrowded main room, Gaspard rose to formally announce where they were bound and why: a necessity, since many of the legation’s members had been loaded into their cryocells before leaving Earth. Expecting to be roused for either the counterattack on or policing of Sigma Draconis, they were startled to find those scenarios already outdated. Adapting to the new one took a little getting used to.

After being handed some notes by his administrative assistant Dieter, Gaspard segued into introducing Morgan Lymbery, who had originally been sent along to seek out and investigate technologies that the Arat Kur might not have risked bringing to Earth. His naval designs had made him the war’s least known and most decisive innovator, and Gaspard apparently wanted the gathering to understand that they had a genuine, if unfamiliar, celebrity in their midst.

Caine had taken a seat to the side of the impromptu head table, an unobtrusive spot from which to survey the entirety of the legation. Some predictable professional affinities were already emerging. Karam had made the acquaintance of the mission’s two other designated pilots: Qin Lijuan, a much-decorated Chinese sloop jockey who had been one of the few to survive the Second Battle of Jupiter, and a Russian veteran by the improbable name of Raskolnikov who was renowned for his ability to fly without instruments in the most adverse conditions. Another such pairing had occurred in the form of NCO bonding between ex-tunnel rat chief Miles O’Garran and towering Kiwi master sergeant Trent Howarth, who was as uniformly amiable as he was silent.

Gaspard finished eulogizing the increasingly uncomfortable Morgan Lymbery and introduced another member of the senior staff, the multiply-accomplished Dr. Melissa Sleeman.

As Gaspard began his overwrought panegyrics, Bannor found a chair next to Caine’s. SAAS Lieutenant Christopher “Tygg” Robin trailed after, eventually perching on a footrest, his knees almost as high as his chin. He looked like a naughty adult who’d been punished with a “time-out.”

“Hello, Caine,” Tygg whispered. “Glad to catch up with you finally. So why isn’t Trevor on this mission? Is he back home minding –?”

A sharp look may have shot from Bannor to Tygg. Who abruptly shut up.

Caine frowned. “Is Trevor ‘at home minding’ what?”

“Minding the store?” finished Tygg, almost smoothly. “I figured Mr. Downing might make him chief overseer of IRIS’ strike teams.”

The explanation was reasonable, but it still had the sound of a hasty invention to replace whatever the Aussie had planned to ask before Bannor shot him the look. “You sure that’s the question you meant to ask, Tygg?”

But Tygg’s eyes were no longer on Caine; they were focused over and past his shoulder. “Who’s that?” he muttered.

Caine turned. Gaspard was concluding Sleeman’s introduction. “That’s Melissa Sleeman. The Wasserman replacement.”

Bannor raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I didn’t read that in the dossier.”

“It’s there between the lines.” Caine dug around for the last chunks of meat in his almost empty bowl of excellent lamb madras. “When the Earthside brain trust realized they had to call Wasserman back home, they started casting around for another all-purpose scientific genius. That’s who they came up with.”

“Well, she sure is easier on the eyes,” Bannor commented quietly. “Probably more useful to a mission like this one, too.”

Caine nodded. “She might not have Wasserman’s depth of insight, but she’s less narrowly focused: a genuine broad-spectrum expert.” He noticed that Tygg was still staring at Sleeman, whose features were a dramatic blend of her Indonesian, Dutch, Canadian, and Sierra Leonese heritage. “Lieutenant Robin, you seem very impressed by Dr. Sleeman’s, er, credentials.”

Tygg nodded. He might or might not have heard what Caine had said.

Bannor pointed across the room with a flick of his eyes. “Well, there’s a familiar face.”

Caine did not recognize anyone. “Who? The big guy hunkered over his curry?”

Bannor nodded. “Yeah. Keith Macmillan. One of the Commonwealth strikers who was providing security for Downing’s classified forward ops center in Perth at the end of the war. Saw him there after we rotated out of Jakarta.”

Caine shrugged. “News to me. I have no idea about what happened after Shethkador shot me in the back with his bogus mechanical arm.”

“Didn’t Downing catch you up on what followed?”

Caine shook his head. “Nope. When they yanked me out of cold sleep in Sigma Draconis, I had one night to get myself briefed on why the Arat Kur weren’t talking to us and why we might have to slaughter them all with a plague. A day later, the Ktor showed up; no time for small talk.”

“Ah. Right.” Bannor returned his attention to his curry. And he avoided Caine’s inquisitive gaze.

Caine kept looking at him, and Bannor kept on not noticing. Now what the hell was that about? That’s more chatty that Bannor has been since, well, since I’ve known him. Why is he –?

Gaspard gestured toward Riordan. “And there, to my distant right, is Caine Riordan, now Captain Riordan, who needs no introduction. He is my deputy on this mission and in charge of security. So, if you are not feeling secure, I commend you to his services.” The weak witticism received a few equally weak laughs, but Gaspard was obviously eager to move on. Caine simply smiled, waved, and went back to his meal. No reason to extend the formalities. He’d already been in touch with half of the new team members. He’d get to the other half tomorrow.

Gaspard began to enumerate Ben Hwang’s many scientific achievements, which was probably unnecessary, since the highpoints of his career both before and after his Nobel prize were common knowledge.

Tygg leaned over toward Caine. “Hsst. You’ve got an admirer.”

Riordan, surprised, glanced up just in time to see Dora Veriden looking away from him, quite bored. “That’s Ms. Veriden, Gaspard’s private security.”

“More like bodyguard,” grumbled Bannor.

“And I’m certainly not getting a come-hither vibe from her, Tygg,” Riordan added quietly.

The Aussie frowned, still looking at Veriden. “Took an eyeful of you just a second ago, though.”

Yeah, if she’s memorizing my face, it’s probably because her boss has told her to bump me off if I become troublesome. “She’s been a pretty closed book, so far,” Riordan observed.

“What’s her story, then?”

Bannor put down his very empty bowl. “Trinidadian native. More or less. Has lived in almost a dozen countries, most of them former French colonies. Any degrees she has are from the school of hard knocks and the college of dirty tricks. There’s no record of her in any of our databases, and the dossier Gaspard forwarded for her has more blank spaces than details. My guess? She’s a DGSE street recruit. Probably a jack of all trades, sharp as a tack, and hard as nails. And if you want more tired colloquialisms, I charge by the word.”

Caine almost choked on his last bite of food.

Ben Hwang rose before Gaspard could attempt to summon a round of applause. “Allow me to overview what we know about the Slaasriithi. I assure you it will be brief, because we know very little. The most distinctive feature of the Slaasriithi is that they are polytaxic.”

Joe Buckley, a Chicagoan who was the legation’s combination purser, quartermaster, and logistician, squinted at the unfamiliar word. “Poly-what?”

Hwang smiled. “The Slaasriithi are a single species, but are divided into specialized subspecies distinguished by significant physiological differences. However, according to the one source we have on them, all these subspecies have consistently evolved to be cooperative parts of their larger, stable social matrix and remain universally interfertile.”

“This one source you referred to: is that the child’s-primer we’ve read about?” The question came from a heavy-set young Ukrainian who was the legation’s physicist and primary assistant to Sleeman.