Raising Caine – Snippet 10
In transit; GJ 1248’s inner system
Caine stepped back, hands on his hips and shirt clinging to his sweaty back, as Yiithrii’ah’aash’s two helpers sealed the cargomod once again. Bannor nodded at the dull grey door, moved past Riordan. “Let’s get a beer. Sir.” He continued on to the pod-bus.
Caine followed, discovered most of the passengers they traveled with on the previous ride. Sleeman and Lymbery had tarried to examine the quasi-biological extrusions that had extended into the module’s interior, up its sides and, after seamlessly merging with the docking sleeve, reportedly reemerged out in space, fusing into the mooring arms.
As the pod-bus began the short run back to their habmod, Sleeman, still staring at the strange, grainy growths, leaned toward Lymbery. “That extrusion is not just a reinforcing structure. Through it, they’re extending their power and data grids to mesh with the ones in our cargo module. And I’ll bet it didn’t break any seals when it pushed out into free space: it just resumed growing in the vacuum. Probably completed the encystment of the cargomod.”
Lymbery may have nodded.
“But what’s really interesting is that the extrusions are not homogenic. They’re comprised of diverse strands, some of which seem to be evolving into power conduits, judging from the havoc they played with my magnetometer. It looks like the parts that are now in contact with our electrical and data junctures began as probes: gel cysts that contact, sample, and assess the interface. They measure and learn to replicate its electromagnetic ‘flavor,’ so to speak. Then, about an hour later, I saw what looked like a custom-grown interface biot being budded off from the end of that bioelectric vein. By the time we come back here again, I’ll bet that biot has evolved into a power transformer which converts Slaasriithi data and electric current into Terran equivalents and vice versa.” She waited, unaware that the entirety of the pod-bus was staring at her. Tygg’s face was a mix of awe and wonder. When Lymbery failed to react to her hypotheses, Melissa leaned in closer. “Well, whaddya think, Morgan?”
Morgan Lymbery blinked as if roused from a waking dream, winced in annoyance. “All possible but excessively speculative. I remain focused on first matters.”
“What first matters?” pursued Melissa, undeterred by Lymbery’s snappish response.
“The chemical nature of the primary extrusions. I posit supramolecular liquid crystal templating or thermoplastic elastomers.”
“Elastomers?” Melissa echoed skeptically. “Natural rubber and polypropylene isn’t likely to be biogenically organic. It’s softening temperature is too high and its glass transition temperature is still not rugged enough for –”
“That analysis is unrealistically constrained to current human standards. Theoretical limits and permutations point toward lower temperature production ranges and broader operational durability limits. There are –”
Melissa interrupted: Caine had the impression her focus on the topic was so intense that she wasn’t even aware she was being rude. “Yeah, but polypropylene is really nasty stuff. Even if its reliability regime could be expanded, how would an organism that’s carbon based not find that lethally toxic?”
“Analysis flawed at root. Example: hydrochloric acid in the human stomach would be lethal to the parent organism if it escaped containment. Directly analogous internal safe containment systems possible. Also, capability for polypropylene extrusion does not require the storage of propylene itself. Raw stock for combination could be stored as separate constituent parts. Conversion into propylene occurs in peripheral organ or sac, which then immediately expels the compound as extrusions.”
“And how –?”
“Storage mediums could include ethylene and other compounds, exploiting olefin metathesis to reverse the necessary –”
“Can someone translate?” Bannor grumbled. “Or get them to stop?”
Caine smiled. “Melissa, Morgan, you might want to save the rest of your debate for the ride down to the planet tomorrow. We’re home.”
“Home?” said Lymbery, rousing out of what had sounded like demonic possession by a chemistry computer. His wistful reaction to the word “home” hardened into adult resignation when he saw the entry to their habmodule. Perhaps, Caine speculated, he had expected to see the quaint roofs of the small Cotswold village from which he had revolutionized human naval architecture. “Oh. Here.” Lymbery sighed, exited the pod-bus.
Caine exited last and was immediately set upon by Joe Buckley. “Captain,” Buckley began without the courtesy of a preamble, “I didn’t have enough time to get a full inventory of the contents of our individual survival packs.”
Caine hadn’t minded being made an officer — until now. “Uh, Joe, if you have the standard allotments of each item in each pack, and you have the total number of packs, then you just multiply, and you have your inventory totals, right?”
Joe shook his head. “Except the pack allotment data is bad. Most of the kits were upgraded after the fleet left Earth. So a lot of them have outdated content descriptions. The only way to get an accurate inventory is by checking each one.”
“Can’t we get by with an estimate, instead of a precise accounting?”
Buckley looked away. “Only if you’re willing to accept a pretty wide margin of error.”
Caine couldn’t tell if he was hearing a tone of frustrated professionalism or innate anal retentiveness. “Joe, for now, take your best guess at the standard contents of the upgraded packs, and flag the result as ‘estimated.'”
Joe looked away, someplace between disappointed and sullen. “Yeah. Okay. Captain.” He started into the habmodule.
“Don’t get stubborn and do something stupid.”
Joe’s voice was now thoroughly respectful, if no less disappointed. “I won’t, sir. I understand the situation.”
Caine almost believed that he did. “Good night, Joe.”
Caine sealed the hatch of the habmodule behind them, watched Joe slouch away toward his stateroom. Given Yiithrii’ah’aash’s warnings about the dangers of moving around the Slaasriithi ship unescorted, Riordan assured himself that no one was stubborn — or stupid — enough to take that kind of risk just to sort out some cargo. Not even Joe Buckley.
* * *
Joe Buckley was that stupid.
Unfortunately, he was also suspiciously proficient at bypassing electronics. He avoided triggering the exit alarm slaved to the inner airlock door. He anticipated and deactivated the touch-sensitive sensors lining every surface within the airlock itself, did the same with the laser trip-wires criss-crossing both the inner and outer hatch coamings, and overrode the lock and disabled the alarm on the outer hatch.
All of which Caine realized in the jarring moment between being awakened by the sound of a repetitive warning tone and the approach of pounding feet. Riordan was already pulling on his duty-suit by the time Ben Hwang, still in shorts and tee shirt, opened his door and panted: “Buckley’s bio monitor in the dispensary just started coding. And he’s not in his cabin.”
Damnit! I should have set a live guard, Caine hammered at himself as he yanked on his shoes and raced past Hwang. “Where does his transponder say he is?”
“He’s off our structure; somewhere on theirs.”
Oh for Christ’s sake —
Bannor nearly collided with Caine as he charged out of his own stateroom. “What’s up?”
“Buckley. On the Slaasriithi hull. Alone. His biomonitor has spiked.”
“Just great. I’ll assemble a team.”
Caine held Bannor’s considerable bicep a moment. “No. You keep Wu and Tygg back here with you. You’re the CO in my absence, and you keep everyone except my response team here in this module. You pulled the firearms from the security packs?”
“As we discussed on the second day.”
“Excellent. You’re to keep them hidden unless someone tries to leave. Then you use them to enforce the no-trespass rule that Buckley ignored.”
“And now you’re going to ignore it, too? Bad plan, boss.”
“Yes, a bad plan. Problem is that doing nothing could be worse. We don’t know what Buckley has done to set off his biomonitor. He could have damaged the ship, hurt a Slaasriithi. He’s our — he’s my — responsibility. I’ve got to get him back. I’ll take Miles, Trent, Keith, andâ€¦and the guy from Peking, the vet who’s an EMT?”
“That would be me,” announced Xue Heng, who came striding up the hall. “I will get a med kit, Captain.”
“Excellent. I’ll meet you at the hatch.”
“Keep your collarcom open, Caine” Bannor called after him.
“We all will. No way to know what we’re going to run into. Also, get me an earcam. I want you to see what we’re seeing.”
“I’m on it.” Bannor peeled off into the habmod’s combination dress-out compartment and ship’s locker.
Caine got two steps closer to the commons room when Gaspard’s voice emerged from his outsize stateroom. “Captain Riordan, what has happened?” Caine told him. Gaspard nodded. “I will ready a team to follow yours just as soon as –”
“No. You will sit tight. This is a security matter and those are my orders. I’ve already spoken with Major Rulaine, who has instructions in case something happens to me. We discussed contingencies extensively on the trip out here. Now, I’ve got to go.”
Gaspard was still trying to say something, but Caine didn’t have time to listen: according to Ben’s distant, rolling updates, whatever was happening to Buckley was getting more severe. His heart rate was dangerously high and his blood stream was awash with endorphins and a number of unknown substances.