Raising Caine – Snippet 15

Yiithrii’ah’aash’s purr rose in a surprised surge. “You are quite correct, Doctor. We rarely induce special subtaxae to care-take xenobiomes during their transitional phases. Rather, we provide the most suitable extant subtaxae with symbiots that allow them to adjust to the local environment without resorting to intrusive devices.” He paused, his sensor-cluster head swiveling more directly toward Riordan, who realized he had blinked several times during Yiithrii’ah’aash’s explanation. “You are perplexed, Caine Riordan?”

“No,” Caine confessed, “but your explanation left me with about a dozen questions. And I can’t figure out where to begin.”

Yiithrii’ah’aash’s purr modulated into a subaudial hum. “We will have time for all those questions after today. By then, I expect some of those queries will have been answered, others will have changed, and many, many more will have arisen. For now, let us walk into this world we call — well, in the dead language you use for attaching scientific classifications to objects, it would roughly translate as Adumbratus. But before our journey, we ask that you spray yourself with the contents of these canisters.”

Responding without any overt summons, Yiithrii’ah’aash’s two companions brought forth the boxes that actually proved to be semi-rigid angular bags. They dispensed the canisters.

“What does this do?” asked Morgan Lymbery, squinting at the container suspiciously. It appeared to be made of a very fine-grained version of the same material which comprised the extrusions that secured their cargo-mod — and that had burrowed straight through Joe Buckley.

Yiithrii’ah’aash was already dousing himself with a mist from one of the containers. “The contents are scent markers, adapted from both our own pheromones and local spores. The latter ensures that the local biota will find you wholly uninteresting, and the former ensures that our own transplanted biota will be affined to you.”

“Affined?” asked Tina Melah. “Is that still a word?”

“Was it ever?” echoed Trent Howarth.

“Actually,” answered Esiankiki, “it is the past-tense verb form of ‘to have affinity for.'” She turned to Yiithrii’ah’aash. “So your own flora and fauna will identify us as living beings who are non-threatening?”

“That is a most adequate summation, Ms. Salunke.”

“How easily does it come off?” asked Dora Veriden darkly from the back of the group.

“The markers are not readily soluble. They do not simply remain on your skin, but will, by osmosis, vest in the outermost cells of your epidermis. This contact with your own fluids enhances their duration and eliminates the risk of dissolution.”

“That’s not what I was concerned about,” Veriden muttered.

As the group applied the spray, Yiithrii’ah’aash continued. “We will be near hard shelter at all times. You must follow me, or our guides, to that cover quickly in the event of a solar flare. This is a low-activity period for GJ 1248, but no star has fully predictable cycles and red dwarfs have the greatest proclivity to deviate from their own patterns.

“Lastly, while there are few bioforms on this planet that would intentionally threaten you, no environment is without risks. This is why you are wearing filter masks in addition to the scent markers. Various airborne spores are present here, and since no humans have visited this environment before, we cannot be certain of their effect upon your respiratory tract. However, we have been able to ascertain that, if you keep your duty-suits sealed and your masks on, you need fear no exposure hazards for several weeks, at least. Now, please follow me.”

As the legation trailed Yiithrii’ah’aash across the tarmac, Riordan realized that the surface was comprised of neither macadam nor tar, but, from the look of it, was some kind of finely-threaded plant that had hardened into a chitinous mass.

Bannor drew alongside Riordan. “Moment of your time?”

“Take as many as you’d like.”

The landing pad underfoot smoothed into what seemed like a vast plastic expanse. “After what happened with Buckley, I think we have to assume that some of our team members may be, well, infiltrated.”

Caine made sure that neither his face nor his gait changed. “Hard to see how. No one knew this trip was coming, and Downing, Sukhinin, and Rinehart reviewed the final candidates with very fine-toothed combs.”

“Agreed, but still we’ve got Buckley dead trying to break into his own, or maybe someone else’s, gear. And we won’t get a chance to learn anything more until the Slaasriithi give us access to the cargomod again. But in the meantime –”

Caine suppressed a nod. “In the meantime, we have to presume that where there’s one inexplicable wildcard, there could be others. I just don’t see what an enemy agent would hope to achieve, or how.”

“Neither do I. And Buckley could simply have awakened into this gig knowing that he had to get rid of some incriminating black-market goods that were sent along with his gear. But we can’t rely on that supposition.”

“Agreed. But since we can’t confirm that or some other motive, we’d just be spinning our wheels when it comes to internal security protocols. So, we’ll have to be on constant watch for anything suspicious. Which means we won’t be watching anything very well.”

“No argument, sir. But one suggestion, if you don’t mind.”

“Look, Bannor: I’m not a professional soldier or a covert operative, so I’m glad for any advice you care to give.”

“First, don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t put safeguards in place after Buckley started acting hinky. Everyone makes mistakes in this business. And although you started as an amateur, you’re losing rookie status pretty quickly. Second, and more important, make sure you keep some distance from Keith Macmillan.”

“Do you think he could be suborned?”

Bannor clucked his tongue. “If I thought that, I’d tell you to stick to him like a tick. Never let your enemies out of sight. No, I’m thinking he’s your best bet for sniffing out if something is brewing in the legation.”

“You mean sabotage?”

“I don’t think that’s likely, but as you’ve said, we’ve got no leads and no hypothesis, only nonspecific worries. In that situation, the most valuable asset you can have is a pair of eyes and ears that no one knows is a member of IRIS. So if you chat with Keith too often, or act as though you have innate trust of him, then any plants in the group will notice. That means you lose Macmillan as the one trump card that you’ve got mixed into the deck but can pull out at any moment. Keep him as a secret asset that might either tweak to a plot in the making, or who can be in the right place to reverse a — well, an unfortunate incident.” Rulaine squinted ahead, toward a cluster of low, squat cone-like trees. “You would not believe how often problems arise in the most unlikely places and for the most unlikely reasons.”

Caine remembered narrowly avoided assassination attempts on Delta Pavonis Three, in deep space, in Washington DC, in Greece, at the Convocation, on Barney Deucy. “Major Rulaine, that is one bit of tactical wisdom of which I do not need to be convinced.”

Rulaine grinned crookedly at him. “No, I don’t suppose you do.”

They reached the edge of the pseudo-tarmac as Yiithrii’ah’aash led the legation to join with a cluster of Slaasriithi from the same subtaxon as his new attendants. Continuing onward, the ambassador began gesturing and explaining something about the grove of bush-trees which they were entering.

“Come on,” urged Caine. “Let’s not miss the tour.”