Raising Caine – Snippet 08

Chapter Eighteen

In transit; GJ 1248’s inner system

Exiting the habitation module at the head of the humans, Yiithrii’ah’aash gestured toward four waiting conveyances. Unlike the small, sealed eggs that had shuttled Caine and his fellow conscious travelers to and from their one trip to the cargo module, these were fitted with clear canopies that emerged seamlessly from the ellipsoidal chassis of the vehicles.

However, “vehicles” didn’t seem an apt word for these objects. They had no protrusions or lines that betrayed the presence of maintenance panels or weld points. The only component reminiscent of human machinery was a panel behind which an operator might sit. But it was impossible to be certain of its exact function: it curved black-glass surface was inert.

It also fronted the eighth seat in the lozenge-shaped craft, into which Melissa Sleeman gleefully slid as she began inspecting the shining ebon arc. Behind her, Morgan Lymbery peered closely at the seamless juncture of the glass canopy and the vehicle’s body. His concentration was as monofocal and unblinking as that often associated with the autistic.

Tygg managed to get into the same pod-car, trailing just behind Peter Wu and Rena Mizrahi. The tall Aussie stole a furtive glance at Melissa as he slung himself into a seat alongside Bannor. Unaware of his attention, she continued inspecting her novel surroundings — until the vehicles rose in unison. Gimballing their rotor-cans, they started toward the cargomod at a reasonable rate.

“Shouldn’t we be starting to feel a loss of gravity equivalent?” wondered Tygg.

“It will take a little longer, and only if we’re moving inward toward the keel,” Caine answered.

“And we’re not,” put in Melissa, “We’re moving at about a twenty-five-degree angle to it right now.”

“How do you know?” Tygg’s voice was wonderstruck and completely incongruent emerging from one of the most blooded veterans of the recent war.

“Oh, well, I just counted the bends we’ve followed.”

Riordan, who prided himself on being observant, wondered: bends? What bends?

The pod-bus slowed, veered into a side tunnel, sped forward a short distance and then slowed as it emerged into an open area. The high-domed space reminded Caine of a small, trackless turning yard: wide oval bulkhead doors were inset upon each of the other five sides of the hexagonal chamber. The pod-busses all landed in a row before the door opposite the tunnel mouth.

After Melissa had exited in an exuberant rush, Bannor asked, “Did anyone else see any of those bends she mentioned?”

“Not me,” Caine confessed.

“I didn’t see anything,” Tygg breathed, his gaze following Melissa.

“That’s because you had something in your eye,” commented Rena over her shoulder as she exited.

“Something in my eye?” Tygg repeated, baffled.

“Yes, as in Dr. Sleeman.” Wu managed not to smile.

“It’s that obvious?” Tygg asked.

Bannor rolled his eyes. Caine laughed, then the mirth suddenly inverted into sharp longing for Elena. He exited the pod-bus quickly.

* * *

Caine and the others who had been conscious for the trip helped the rest of the legation unload their scant belongings from the personal luggage antechamber of the cargo module. Finished, they gathered before the large doors into the main lading section, waiting for their hosts.

“Unloading should be easy,” commented Esiankiki Salunke, who moved gracefully in the slightly reduced gravity. “Everything weighs less.”

“Yeah,” commented Joe Buckley, “just remember that mass is unchanged. People who forget that often get squished.”

Esiankiki raised an eyebrow. “My, you are a most cheery person.”

“Comes from seeing newb cargo handlers get smashed as flat as a surfboard. Gives me a sunny outlook on this job.”

Caine heard a soft hum, turned to see another vehicle gliding to a halt in the turning yard. As soon as the craft had settled to the deck, Yiithrii’ah’aash emerged from it, followed by a pair of Slaasriithi whose matching physiognomies differed slightly from his. Their necks were shorter, thicker: more like a giraffe’s than an ostrich’s. However, their bodies and limbs were longer, thinner. Their fingers were wraith-like tapers, as were their bifurcated prehensile tails. And instead of having Yiithrii’ah’aash’s stunted, toe-like protrusions, they had what appeared to be another set of full grasping tendrils in contact with the deck. Overall, whereas a quick glance at the ambassador’s odd-hipped torso produced the impression of a lean gibbon, his two associates’ bodies recalled lemurs on the edge of emaciation.

“What’s wrong with them?” Buckley muttered.

“Nothing. I think they’re part of a different taxon,” answered Ben Hwang.

Buckley stared blankly at the word “taxon.”

Well, it’s clear who doesn’t pay close attention during briefings.

Ben moved forward to greet the new arrivals. “Ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash, I wonder if I might ask you a question about your companions: are they members of a different taxon?”

Yiithrii’ah’aash’s purr was long and continued beneath the first half of his reply. “Your perception is excellent, Doctor. They are members of a specialized sub-taxon, to be exact.” He turned to one of them.

Which bobbed its head once, and spoke through a translator hanging beneath its arm. “I am a” — at which point the translator fumbled and spat random syllables. “We were induced to serve in environments where gravity is low or nonexistent. It was deemed prudent to encourage a return of certain features from our arboreal origins” — he/she/it wriggled the deck-splayed toe-fingers meaningfully — “to provide us with better grasping and maneuvering capabilities in zero-gee environments. I am incompletely informed, but I understand that in your own species, some of the same attenuations of skeleton and musculature are observed after several generations of low gravity breeding.”

Gaspard, who had moved forward more slowly than Hwang, nodded. “Yes, this is so. However, we discourage this: it problematizes our social coherence.”

“The inducement of a useful new subform tends the group toward disharmony?” The low-gee Slaasriithi’s neck seemed to quiver faintly, like a tuning fork losing the last vibrations of a tone. “I do not understand.”

Yiithrii’ah’aash intervened, several finger-tendrils uncoiling toward Gaspard. “You will appreciate that for those of us not well acquainted with humanity, your disapproval regarding a physical alteration in your species sounds contradictory. For us, social harmony is not physically dependent upon, nor a product of, homogeneity of form. To the contrary, our harmony arises from the diverse capabilities enabled by carefully selected variations in our forms. As you shall see more completely tomorrow. Now, allow me to enable access to your supplies.”

Yiithrii’ah’aash raised his “hand” which, Caine saw, was now sleeved in something that looked like a form-fitting glove moored by nonornamental rings and covered irregularly by studs. The ambassador’s prehensile fingers went through a set of impossible contortions, apparently bringing several of the rings and studs into rapid contact with each other. The heavy doors into the main cargo compartment clunked heavily: unlocked.

Bannor, eyes still on Yiithrii’ah’aash’s glove and rings, raised an eyebrow. “That is one strange control device.”

“Strange but effective,” Hwang murmured. “I bet they can get more combinations drummed out faster than we can with our touch screens. And it’s obviously versatile enough to interface with our own systems.” He followed Yiithrii’ah’aash into the cargomod. Caine trailed after.

It was, on first impression, like entering the belly of an industrial age Leviathan. They stood at the threshold of a cavernous hexagonal tunnel, fifty meters long and twenty meters high. Two elevated gantries ran its length, the first one perched eight meters over the deck, the second at sixteen. Spools of zero-gee guide wires and their mooring points dotted the metal gridwork of ladders, decks, and stalls. And stacked upon or jammed against every available surface except the ground-level’s central walkway were universal lading containers of several different shapes.