Raising Caine – Snippet 18

Chapter Twenty-Three

Bioband’s valland and In orbit; GJ 1248 One (“Adumbratus”)

Caine started shouting instructions into his collarcom. “Tygg, did you hear Bannor’s report?”

“Most of it. I think. Commo’s scratchy.”

“Stay close to the ambassadors. You and O’Garran set up a defensive perimeter with the others. If Yiithrii’ah’aash can do something about the situation, have him do it quickly. Without weapons, all we can do is throw sticks and shout. Doubt that’s going to do very much.”

“I’m on it.”

Riordan changed the com channel. “Bannor, is Wu with you?”

“No, back with Macmillan.”

Damn it. “So who’s closest to Veriden?”

“Me and you. But I’m just topping the rise that she got chased off of. Karam took off after the critter that rushed her. More guts than brains, that guy. But he’s dropping behind pretty quickly.”

Caine swerved off the path they’d followed, headed out into the alien undergrowth. “Can you still see Veriden and the — the creature?”

“Yeah, but –”

“Then stay right where you are. You’re the only one with eyes on both objectives. Can you see me yet? I’m coming around the northern spur of the drumlin.”

“No, I — yes: you just came into sight.”

“Good. I can’t see Dora or the creature, so talk me into an intercept. And talk Veriden toward me.”

“Yeah, but what the hell are you going to do?”

“Find a handy rock and hope to hell it doesn’t want to tackle two of us. Talk Karam toward us also, and Howarth. Have Wu and Macmillan watch our backs for more critters. They might not hunt alone.”

“I’m on it. For now, angle a little to your left. You’ve got about a minute of running ahead of you. Well, maybe more.” The carrier wave snicked off.

Riordan heard yelling behind him, then multiple pages to his collarcom from random team-members. He ignored it all. Bannor would either intervene and play switchboard or delegate it to Tygg, but either way, combat experience had taught Caine that when you are at the tip of the spear, you cannot see and coordinate the big picture. His only job was to keep closing, stay alert, and listen for updates.

Which came in fast enough. “Caine,” Bannor shouted, “swerve into that gulch you’re approaching on the right. I got Dora to duck in there. She’ll be coming straight toward you. With company right behind.”

“Roger that. Where’s Karam?”

“Bringing up the rear. Probably wishing he’d spent a few more hours in the gym.”

“You get a look at the thing chasing Dora?”

“Nope. Just saw its dust.”

“Veriden tell you anything?”

“She’s too busy sprinting, breathing, and cursing.”

Can’t say I blame her. “Any sign of other predators?”

“Nope. Yiithrii’ah’aash’s signal is bad, but he made it clear that this creature is not a pack predator.”

Well, some good news at last. “Send Macmillan and Wu after me once the rest of the legation has regrouped under Tygg’s protection. And send out the ex-military EMT from Peking, Xue.”

“You’ve got it — and you should have a visual any moment now.”

“Maybe, but I’ve got a big boulder in my way. I’m going to have to go arou –”

Riordan dodged a blur that shot out from the blind side of the boulder: Dora Veriden. She detected Caine just before colliding with him: her side-stepping dodge morphed effortlessly into the karate move known as a back-stepping shuto, or knife-hand block. Damn. Bodyguard, indeed.

“Shit, Riordan: are you trying to kill me with a body block?”

“Hello yourself. Find a weapon. How far behind you is it?”

“We have three seconds. Fan out.”

Which seemed the only thing to do. Caine spotted and scooped up a hand-sized stone the same moment he saw a new blur come around the boulder. He went into a sideways ready stance, stone cocked back —

And stared. The creature halted abruptly, might have been staring back. But Riordan couldn’t tell because he could not discern any obvious eyes. Hell, nothing was obvious about this critter.

Clearly one of Adumbratus’ indigenous species, it was a chitinous triped standing — crouching? — over two meters tall. Its smooth legs swept upward into curved, articulated joints. Its ovate thorax was topped by a tapering, swaying neck sheathed in reticulated plates. The head resembled a hyper-streamlined balpeen hammer, black specks chasing down either side of it like a dotted line. The underside of the hammer’s head snapped up and down once; not a typical predator’s jaws — no fangs or decisively sharp teeth — but the force of that surprised bite at empty air would have put a grizzly bear to shame.

The creature — a blend of dark cerulean and cyan with black-violet racing stripes — started toward Caine but then flinched toward Dora again. Wait: did it feint at me before attacking her? Or was it jumping away from me? One way to find out —

Riordan leapt into the space between the creature and Dora.

The blue tripod-nightmare drew up short, rattled ominously from someplace in the rear of its balpeen head, but finally jerked back. It swayed from side to side.

Caine swayed with it.

More annoyed rattling. It feinted as though it might try to slip through the gap between Riordan and the boulder, and thereby get to Dora, but Caine had the measure of the creature: its aversion to him precluded its use of that excessively narrow space. Anticipating its ploy, Caine jumped to the other side.

The tripod, leaping to exploit what it clearly hoped would be a widened hole in Caine’s other flank, thrashed in midair, screeching like china plates in a woodchipper as it collapsed into an abortive tangle of limbs.

Veriden moved to stand just behind Caine. “Coño,” she muttered.

“Yeah,” Riordan agreed. He took a step forward.

The blue and black monster, having just regained its tripedal footing, skittered backward. It quivered, as if at the end of an invisible leash. Caine had no knowledge of the fauna of GJ 1248, and damn little of any other planet besides Earth’s, but the creature’s intents were unmistakable. It desperately wanted to leap forward, to trample and gut Riordan. But a countervailing impulse was holding it back: not mere uncertainty, or fear, but a shuddering aversion akin to a human resisting immersion in bleach.

From the direction of the trail and from beyond the boulder, distant cries were growing rapidly louder.

With a swiftness that Riordan had never seen in a quadruped — possibly because this creature’s body didn’t turn; its thorax simply rotated — the tripedal attacker skittered off, raising up a considerable cloud of dust.

Caine, duty suit sticking to his sweat-covered body, shouted into the collarcom, “Bannor, call off Karam. Make sure that thing’s got an unobstructed route of retreat.”

“Already done. And Jesus, is that monster fast. So much for ‘no predators worth worrying about.’ I’m really interested to hear how Yiithrii’ah’aash is going to explain that one.”

“Yeah,” Caine agreed. And I’m going to be even more interested to learn why it avoided me like the plague — and hunted Veriden like she was dinner.

* * *

Caine’s hair was still damp from showering when his stateroom’s privacy chime rang. “Computer: permit entry.” Then, louder: “Come in.”

Ben Hwang and Bannor Rulaine stepped through the opening hatchway. “Got a minute?” asked the major.

“Probably just about that. We haven’t heard from Yiithrii’ah’aash since getting back to the ship, but he’ll want to chat with us pretty soon.”

Hwang nodded. “Undoubtedly. Gaspard is concerned that today’s events could derail what he calls the ‘relationship fundament of initial diplomatic overtures.'”

“Do you think Gaspard spoke that way before he attended the Sorbonne?”

Hwang sighed. “Bannor, I suspect he came out of the womb speaking that way. But he may be right. Yiithrii’ah’aash cut the tour a lot shorter than he intended and has been very reticent since.”

Caine shrugged. “Yes, but I’m not sure that’s indicative of disappointment or anger with us.”

Ben folded his arms. “No? Why not?”

“Look, we don’t know why that creature didn’t avoid Veriden’s scent marker, but the bottom line is that our visit to Yiithrii’ah’aash’s ‘safe’ planet went to hell in a hand-basket. It was like going to a new friend’s house who tells you that his dog doesn’t bite, and then looking down to find its jaws locked on your leg. So Yiithrii’ah’aash may be as embarrassed as he is upset.”

“Yes, but Gaspard is still worried that Yiithrii’ah’aash will reassess whether the Slaasriithi should ally with us.”

Which might be a blessing in disguise. But what Riordan said was: “That’s a reasonable trepidation.” He sat, looked at Bannor. “So, you were going to speak with Dora.”

Bannor nodded. “I did.”

“She didn’t know why that thing might have attacked her?”

“We didn’t get that far. She pulled rank and clammed up.”

Hwang stared. “She pulled rank? How? She’s part of our security detachment, right?”

Riordan shook his head. “Technically, she is Gaspard’s personal security asset. She doesn’t have to coordinate with, or report to, me at all. Unless she wants to. Or Gaspard instructs her to do so.”

Bannor nodded. “Which was the line she took with me.”

Hwang’s stare had grown wider. “So we can’t get her to answer questions about the incident until he, or she, says so?”

Bannor’s nod seemed to trigger the privacy chime. Caine raised his voice. “Come in.”

Dora Veriden entered, looking more sullen than usual. Caine stood, resisted the urge to comment on her extraordinary timing. “Hello, Ms. Veriden. How are you feeling?”

Her incongruously elfin features went from dour to vinegary. “You keep asking me that: why?”

“I only asked you one other time: right after the creature ran away. I’m checking that you’re doing okay.”

“Listen: when it was chasing me, I wasn’t so okay. That’s over. So now I’m okay. Is that so hard to understand?”