Raising Caine – Snippet 11
By the time Riordan reached the commons room, Miles, Trent, and Keith were there. All had guns. Caine shook his head.
“But — ” began Miles.
“No. We can’t. It’s not our ship. The Slaasriithi warned us against this. We can’t inflict any damage on them, or their ship, to save Buckley or even ourselves. Besides, guns are likely to exacerbate any misunderstandings that already exist among our hosts.” None of them looked happy as Heng arrived with a medkit and Bannor showed up with an earcam.
Caine snugged the loop of the tiny device over his ear and added, “Look, this is my screw up: it was on me to ensure that this didn’t happen. So although I asked you to report here, this is strictly a volunteer mission.”
Keith looked at the open hatch. “We’re wasting time.”
Trent smiled his big easy smile. “After you, sir.”
Caine, feeling very much that he did not deserve the loyalty of such fine persons, led the way.
* * *
Halfway to the cargomod, underneath the sounds of the team’s sprinting progress, Riordan heard other footfalls. He turned: swift and surprisingly stealthy, Dora Veriden was following them. Damn it, what’s she doing here? But no time to stop now: her choice, her fate.
As they rounded the second of the corridor’s slight bends, differences in speed began to stretch the group out. Trent — tall, athletic, in his twenties — was outpacing all of them. Miles and Heng, short legs pumping quickly, lost their early lead and started to drop behind, particularly Heng who, although a veteran, was not an active duty SEAL like O’Garran. Keith had originally outpaced Caine slightly, but age and a heavy, if muscular build, were wearing him down. Meanwhile, Dora Veriden, despite a much later start, had almost caught up to Heng.
Trent looked back. Caine waved him on. The big Kiwi showed his real speed and started pulling far ahead.
“You shouldn’t be out here.” The voice from over Caine’s shoulder was guttural, strained: Dora Veriden.
Caine didn’t waste the breath on responding, saved it to try to keep pace with Trent.
Veriden uttered an annoyed grunt, and, with a surprising burst of speed, pulled ahead of Riordan and started closing on the Kiwi. Good God, is she enhanced? Does Gaspard know? Would he have brought along an illegal –?
Up ahead, Trent sprawled headlong just before the turn that led into the turning yard chamber. Veriden veered toward him — and went down an eye-blink later. They both tried to rise, but a mist seemed to be surging intermittently about them, battering them down. Damn it; what the hell –? “Are you seeing this, Ben? Any guesses?” Caine muttered into his collarcom.
No response. Not even a carrier tone. Probably jammed by the Slaasriithi ship’s on-board electronic defenses.
Caine veered toward the right hand wall, the one that led into the turn, kept running while he tried to make out whatever had hit Trent and Dora. But as far as he could tell, they were unharmed, unmarked, except they were covered in what looked like cobwebs —
Caine glanced up. Where the walls met the ceiling, there was a dark seam, rimmed by the same substance which had extruded itself across the cargomod. Could it also conceal something like spinnerets?
Caine hadn’t realized he’d slowed so much and was surprised when both O’Garran and Macmillan raced past him to help Trent and Dora. As they did, vapor-fine filaments jetted downward, so thick that they created the impression of fog.
Within half a second, the strands that had landed on Macmillan stiffened, and the increased resistance brought him down. However, O’Garran managed to dance out of the spray pattern — or had he? Given its density and dispersion, that seemed impossible, unless —
Had the filaments only hit O’Garran because he was close to Macmillan? No time to observe or think: those spinnerets are still spraying. If there’s a better chance to be had by rushing through while they’re busy with Macmillan —
Caine sprinted toward the corner, felt some of the filaments land on him, felt them change consistency: one moment they were as loose as a strand of hair, the next they were steel thread. But the few that hit him were just nuisances, had evidently been aimed at Macmillan.
As Riordan and O’Garran rounded the corner, they also detected the first whiffs of an astringent, medicinal smell.
“Gas?” O’Garran panted, struggling to run. The hardened fibers across of the front of his duty suit had hardened in to a mostly immobile cast.
“Probably,” gasped Caine. “The others: they alive?”
“Think so. Breathing.”
O’Garran started lagging as the scent of the gas rose behind them. “Go,” he said.
Riordan nodded. There was nothing else to do, although helping Joe Buckley — whose skills evidently included those possessed by accomplished felons — had now become a rather ironic objective.
As Caine rounded the final corner into the turning yard, he heard a thump well behind him; O’Garran had gone down. Pushing back against a surge of vomit, Riordan sprinted across the chamber’s circular expanse, came up short when he confronted the cargomod’s still-open doors. The fibrous extrusions now resembled a mahogany lava flow that ran from the bay of the Slaasriithi vessel into the cargomod as one seamless mass. And from beyond that resinous cavern mouth, Riordan heard a single, child-high shriek.
Riordan’s plunge through the doorway was reflexive, but not incautious. Uncertain of what he’d find, he went in low and straight toward cover. But there was no fight in progress, no torture, not even any Slaasriithi or intruders to be seen: just Joe Buckley’s distant torso, squirming irregularly beyond one of the motion-activated lights, halfway along the length of the cargomod.
Caine jumped up, sprinted those twenty yards, scanning for tools as he went, preparing to help Buckley however he could — but stopped when he saw Joe’s predicament. And thought: what the hell is that? — and what the hell can I do?
Vac-suited Joe Buckley seemed to be pinned to the wall next to one of the cargomod’s primary power mains. But in the next moment, Caine realized that the extrusions which had snaked down the wall toward the mains were holding Joe up. But no, that wasn’t quite right, either —
They had transfixed Joe, and were growing, even now, toward the cargomod’s power mains, burrowing through his body to do so. In the one paralyzed second that it took for Riordan to understand what he was seeing, more of Buckley’s abdomen sagged. The hole in it widened, the extrusions leaking a slow but constant secretion that was, from the smell of it, highly alkaline. Joe seemed to rouse out of a stupor, yelled incoherently, sobbed back into quasi-consciousness.
Caine looked around: a power-saw. Hand-sized, the kind used to cut off locks or through simple sheet steel. He grabbed it off the deck, jumped next to Buckley to get to the power mains — and discovered what had probably initiated the horrific scenario.
The power mains were covered by a luminescent polyp that emerged from the extrusion burrowing through Buckley’s body. Another such polyp, lifeless and dull, lay on the deck, evidently torn aside by Buckley when he attempted to connect the saw to the mains and scorched his hands trying. Beyond the burnt meat smell, the air was thick with the medicinal tang of the gas from the corridor, but it was stale, had probably been used at the outset. Apparently, the gas had also kept Joe senseless as the extrusion burrowed through his body in its unswerving purpose: to get to the power mains.
Caine spent one moment looking at the situation, waiting for a solution — any solution — to come to him. But the only course of action that he could think of was the same that would have occurred to his Cro-Magnon ancestors. Without attempting to plug it in, and using his left hand to cover his nose and mouth, Riordan slammed the hand saw down across the conductive polyp attached to the mains.
A blast of heat and energy sent him backwards. The extrusion transfixing Buckley, which had seemed as solid as a stalagmite a moment ago, writhed. Buckley’s eyes opened into panic and pain as the spasms of the extrusion widened the wound, his weight slamming back and forth against the dark root-like protrusion upon which he was impaled. He shrieked. Blood spattered. A fresh wave of the astringent smell preceded a glistening rush of the corrosive fluid which had already eaten a hole through Buckley’s torso. The edges of that gore-rimmed gap widened more rapidly. Fumes arose as tissue and fluids bubbled.
As Caine rose, groggy but resolved to try again, Joe’s screams became more desperate, his writhing wilder — which brought him fractionally closer to the mains. Apparently, the once-luminous fluid that splattered on him when he’d smashed the first polyp remained a powerful conductor. Actinic, blue-white charges danced out of the mains’ sockets and along vaporous trails leading to Buckley’s chest and shoulders. The smell of charring flesh increased along with the smell of the gas. Caine staggered forward, fell to his knees. The scene began doubling, the sounds blurry and indistinct as Buckley’s desperate struggles transformed into spasmodic convulsions —