Raising Caine – Snippet 14

“Such work is uncommon,” Hirano admitted in a small voice.

Caine smiled. “You wouldn’t happen to be one of those rare researchers, would you, Mizuki?”

Her answering smile was also small. “I have shared my opinions in one or two papers.”

Karam snorted, but it was not a derisive sound. “Figures.” He boosted the craft slightly. “Pretty lively air here where the hotside drafts are zooming across to equalize the subzero soup on the dark side. We’ve just started biting into the atmosphere and I can already feel the buffeting.”

“You can?”

“Sure,” Karam answered as Qin Lijuan nodded her confirmation.

“I can’t,” Hirano confessed.

“That’s because it’s not your job,” Karam observed. “And that’s why we’re landing this barge in a hands-on mode. We’re depending as much on the feel of this bird and the nav-sensor readings as we are on the avionics and the flight computer.” Karam put his palm on the manual throttle and pushed the thrust higher, along with the shuttle’s nose.

Riordan felt the increased, thready vibration through his seat. “Isn’t this when we would normally be backing off the thrusters?”

Karam didn’t turn away from his instruments, but Caine could see a smile quirk the rearmost corner of his mouth. “So, you have been paying attention during the sims.”

“Weeks of running them again and again will even help a newb like me,” Riordan replied.

Karam nodded tightly as the shuttle jounced, settled, seemed to float upward on a giant palm before dropping down sharply. “To answer your question: yeah, at this point, we’d normally be backing off the thrust, letting the belly soak up the energy of our descent as we serpentine in to dump velocity. But here, that protocol would get us killed. We’ve got to get through the turbulence of the air masses moving from the brightside to the darkside. We need powered flight for that. And our glide path, even from this altitude, is fundamentally perpendicular to the plane of the equator.”

“Because we are making a longitudinal, not latitudinal, approach?”

“Correct, Captain,” Qin Lijuan answered, who was now in control of the shuttle as Karam plotted telemetry changes to compensate for new meteorological data. “However, it will not be convenient to answer further questions at this time.”

Riordan reflected that he really didn’t have any more flight related questions, now that the life-sustaining sections of the bioband were in plain view. It was a meandering valley cut with swathes of mauve, maroon, teal and aqua foliage, and they were slowly angling down into it from the hotside.

The thermals came in layers, the faint shuddering of the calm belts alternating with teeth-rattling surges from the more super-heated currents. At times, Karam and Lijuan had to fight to keep the shuttle from rolling by nosing slightly into the drafts, being pushed sideways as they maintained dynamic equilibrium against the lateral forces until they could get underneath each successive current.

After almost a quarter hour of jostling alongside and against the cyclonic winds rushing toward the distant glacial wall of the darkside, Lijuan was finally able to bring the nose back down. The shuttle slipped beneath the level of the terminal moraine which rose up like a long, high ridgeline interspersed with hillocks. As the craft did so, the orange-red light coming in the cockpit windows dimmed, the shielding ridge blocking the line of sight to the sun. The wide valley beneath them swum into sharper focus with the loss of the glare: patches of spongy aquamarine plant canopy snugged against the backside of the ridge. Swards of dusky maroon and vibrant violet flora reached out from its foot, shot through with occasion streaks and patches of white-washed ultramarine and teal. The sharply separated colors chased up and down faint bowl-shaped depressions, in and out of faint hollows where thin water courses glimmered in the indirect lighting.

“Damn,” muttered Karam, “I’ve been to at least half the green worlds out beyond Epsilon Indi. Half of the brown ones, too. But this –”

“Different?” Caine asked.

“And then some.”

Hirano, her nose pushed up against the cockpit glass, nodded in eager agreement.

Lijuan, who had transitioned back to dynamic controls, initiated the landing sequence. Two of the thrusters slowly rotated into a vertical attitude as the landing gear began groaning out of their wheel-wells.

“How long, Lieutenant?” Riordan asked.

“Four minutes, sir.”

“Then it’s time to have the rest of the mission break out the filter masks. We’ve got a planet to visit.”

* * *

With the entirety of the legation sheltering under the still-warm belly of the lander, Gaspard approached Caine and flipped open the speaking port beneath the filters of his mask. “Your security personnel seem pensive, Captain. Have you passed them any warnings of which I should be aware?”

Riordan squinted into the strangely diffuse light, saw that Yiithrii’ah’aash had now debarked from his own craft. Two significantly shorter but stockier Slaasriithi were approaching from the edge of the landing pad, carrying what appeared to be boxes. Caine shook his head. “No, I haven’t issued any special orders, Ambassador. My personnel just don’t like being tasked to protect against threats if they don’t have weapons.”

“And you have similar feelings?”

Riordan shrugged. “After what happened with Buckley, I can hardly blame our hosts for not allowing us to carry devices which could turn a simple misunderstanding into a massacre. Besides, I think the last thing the Slaasriithi want to do is to harm us.”

“I find it refreshing, if surprising, that you agree with our hosts, and with me, in this matter.”

“I do,” affirmed Caine, “but that’s not the same thing as saying that I don’t understand how my security team feels or that I don’t share their sentiments. I simply concur that, in this place and at this time, it’s best for us to leave our weapons behind. Besides, I don’t think Yiithrii’ah’aash was going to brook any debate on the topic.”

Gaspard’s voice conveyed what sounded like a rueful smile. “On that point we are in complete agreement, my good Riordan.”

As Yiithrii’ah’aash and his attendants drew close, the ambassador unfurled several long fingers into an undulating greeting.

Tygg’s sotto voce comment rose up from the rear of the ragged cluster of humans. “We wave hands; they wave fingers.”

That prompted a few chuckles and giggles, one of which came from Melissa Sleeman. Which means that Tygg is wearing a big, stupid smile right now. As Riordan raised a hand to return Yiithrii’ah’aash’s greeting, he stole a quick look at the ambassador’s new companions. These Slaasriithi were not only smaller and stocky, but had lightly furred, symmetrical protrusions where a hominid’s short ribs would be located. Yiithrii’ah’aash noted Caine’s curious stare. “They are not neoplasms, as you might conjecture if you relied upon visual parallels from your own physiology.”

Rena Mizrahi answered before Riordan could formulate an adequate response. “I can see that: the protrusions are too regular, both in their own shape, and in their bilateral placement.” She pulled in a deep, air-testing breath as she continued to assess the two protrusions on each of the new Slaasriithi. “The air here is somewhat thin. Are those bulges, uh, symbiotic — living — air compressors?”