Raising Caine – Snippet 24

Chapter Twenty-Six

Close orbit, GJ 1248 Three and Far orbit; Sigma Draconis Two

“Nezdeh,” Sehtrek called over his shoulder, “the Slaasriithi shift-carrier is breaking from orbit. At full acceleration.”

Nezdeh Srina Perekmeres had not yet crossed from the hatchway to the con. “Did they detect us?” Refueling out at GJ 1248’s gas giant, Red Lurker had been shielded from the Slaasriithi shift-carrier’s active sensors. Also, there was no sign that the outer planets had been seeded with passive trespass monitors. Nonetheless…

“No indication of detection, Nezdeh. But the target has acted with considerable dispatch ever since the two interface craft returned from the surface of the planet.”

Nezdeh fastened the top clasp of her off-duty tunic when no one was looking. Over the past three days, she and Idrem had only had a few intermittent hours when their off-duty cycles over-lapped, and this had been one of them — until she had been summoned to the Arbitrage’s bridge two minutes ago.

Brenlor ducked through the hatchway, waved off Sehtrek’s attempt to update him. He had been aboard Red Lurker when its superior sensor suite had alerted them to the first signs that the target might be preparing to move. “Your assessment, Nezdeh?”

“They mean to make best speed to their shift point.”

“Then we must break off our own refueling immediately and commence preacceleration. That way, we will arrive before them in BD +02 4076 with enough lead time to take on fuel and seek a suitable position from which to ambush them.”

“Assuming they are heading to that system at all,” added Sehtrek.

“And if they are not,” Nezdeh amended, “then we will refuel and seek our fortunes elsewhere. And elsewise.”

Brenlor was able to hear this disappointing possibility with almost complete equanimity now. “We would have little choice. Sehtrek, commence preacceleration for the shift point to BD +02 4076 as soon as our skimmers have returned to their berths.” Leaning over, he asked Nezdeh in a lower voice, “Has Idrem determined the likelihood that the Slaasriithi will see our tug’s anti-matter drive, this time?”

Nezdeh nodded. “If we stay in the shadow of the gas giant, and if the target continues to maintain its current course, that will put the star directly between us. They have, at best, a twenty percent chance of detecting us as we accelerate.”

Brenlor did not take his eyes away from the starfield. “I do not like those odds.”

Nezdeh decided to take a chance: changing into the ancient dialect used only among the Srinu of the Creche worlds, she observed, “Twelve weeks ago, you would have found those odds exhilarating.”

Brenlor nodded tightly, answered in the same tongue. “Twelve weeks ago, I was still thinking like an angry Srin, and a prodigal to boot. Now that the die are cast, I think like a man who may one day be a Hegemon.” He turned to face her. “Before our Extirpation, I had no such hopes. I was rash during my first years outside the precinct walls. I resented the Breedmistresses’ prediction that I would never rise high enough to even guard a Hegemon’s dais. Now?” He shrugged. “I may be the last of our line left to ascend that platform myself. And so I school myself to think appropriately.”

Nezdeh put a hand on her cousin’s arm. “And have done so admirably.” She looked at the virtual instruments showing their telemetry and other transit data. “How long?” she asked Sehtrek.

“One hundred and fifty hours.”

Nezdeh rose, relinquishing the con to Brenlor. “Only six days to wait, now.”

His smile was both rueful and feral as he slid into the captain’s chair. “I would not mind if it was a bit longer, this time.”

“Really? Why?”

Brenlor’s smile was now wholly feral. “So I have enough time to prepare our ambush.”

* * *

One hundred and forty-nine hours later, when the Arbitrage reached her shift point, Nezdeh and Brenlor were back on its bridge. In the faux-holograph of the navplot, the green blip of the pre-accelerating Slaasriithi ship was headed directly away from them.

“Threshold energy state attained,” the Aboriginal pilot announced. “Shift drive ready.”

“Engage,” Brenlor ordered.

Reality seemed to swim through a hole in itself and emerge on the far side, unchanged — except for the star field, and the nearby mass of a gas giant.

The communications officer put a hand to her ear. “Idrem with a sensor report; multiple small objects orbiting the main planet.”

“Size of objects?”

“Initial densitometer readings are imprecise, but they seem to vary between seventy and four-hundred fifty cubic meters. All are spherical.”

Brenlor nodded. “Surveillance satellites and automated craft. Any sign of weapons?”

“Given the distance and our reliance upon passive sensors, Idrem reports that we are unable to discern any. He remarks, however, that the Trojan point asteroid fields of the main planet are both highly attenuated and quite dense.”

Brenlor nodded. “We will approach the Spinward Trojan point carefully and ensure that it has no dormant trespass sensors… If it doesn’t, then we shall spring our ambush from there.”

Nezdeh nodded. “In the meantime, let us fill our tanks at the gas giant so that, if the Slaasriithi shift-carrier does make this its next — and final — destination, we are in readiness.” And then quickly move on, before Tlerek Srin Shethkador catches our scent and sends some stealthy hounds to track us down…

* * *

As soon as Tlerek Srin Shethkador heard Olsirkos enter his spin-chambers, he asked, “You have completed your review of both the general ship’s log, and the communications log?”

“Yes, Fearsome Srin. As I reported, Ferocious Monolith’s journey to Sigma Draconis was largely uneventful. In fact, the Senior Annalist recorded statistically low mortality among the unshielded low-gee helots, of which all deaths were, happily, cull-worthy. As one often encounters on an Aegis ship, there were several disputes that required intervention and summary discipline. One evolved into a formal duel.”

“What do you know about that duel?”

“Very little, Honored Srin. After it was reported to me, I had the senior lictor investigate to ensure there were no security or operational consequences. The senior annalist collected the particulars to make his report. That was the end of the matter.”

“I see. When did the duel occur?”

“Several days before departing the V 1581 system, our last shift to this destination. The duel involved the second bridge crew’s communications officer and one of his journeyman-trainees. There was no indication that House rivalry was the cause of the duel.”

Shethkador waited for further explication. None came. “The loss of the second communications officer affected crewing, did it not?”

Olsirkos shrugged. “Slightly. The second communications officer was scheduled to transfer to Red Lurker, which we left behind in V 1581 three days later. The first alternate communications specialist was tasked to take his place aboard Lurker. The second alternate, the trainee who won the duel, became the second crew’s communications officer here aboard Monolith.”

“So, as the new secondary comm officer, the trainee’s duties now include maintaining the communications logs, running readiness checks, and monitoring enemy communications, correct?”

“That is correct.”

And still Olsirkos does not see the connection. “Has your new second communications officer brought any unusual enemy communications to your attention?”

Olsirkos frowned. “No, Fearsome Srin.” This time, Olsirkos put extra emphasis upon the word “fearsome.”

“So, shall we presume that he failed to notice this?” Shethkador pressed a stud on his belt-com. Behind him, communications records from twelve days prior rose up as a holoflat. Shethkador had flagged one of the entries in red.

Olsirkos scanned it: a footnote appended to the report of an informer aboard an Aboriginal cargo ship, the RFS Ladoga. It reported that her master, Captain Ludmilla Privek, had hurriedly submitted an exhaustive report concerning the last known whereabouts of a senior-grade cargo worker. This worker, Agnata Manolescu, had been officially missing for ten weeks. However, it seemed probable that her disappearance occurred earlier and that Privek had avoided drawing attention to it, hoping to resolve the matter independently and save face.

Olsirkos’ frown deepened. “Potent Srin, I fail to see –”

“Read every word, seek every nuance. Why, after the worker had been officially missing for over two months, was the master of the ship suddenly compelled — compelled — to submit a complete report, at the direct and confidential order of Lord Admiral Halifax himself?”

Olsirkos scrolled back through the Aboriginal communications traffic. He stopped at an entry dated five days prior to the submission of the report. “This must be it. The Aboriginals found the cargo worker’s body adrift in space.” His frown returned. “It was not discovered near any currently used orbital track. Why did they even think to look for it?”

Shethkador wondered if Olsirkos’ future might not merely include demotion but an appointment with a cull-master. “Logic dictates that we must return to the beginning of the incident: the first, internal record of Manolescu’s disappearance. Her last known location on the Ladoga was in a cargo bay during a high-priority transfer of cold cells, and you will note their destination.”

Olsirkos’ voice was dry — or possibly strangled with anxiety: “The cold cells were being transferred to the Slaasriithi vessel.”

“Yes. This tells us how the Aboriginals found Agnata Manolescu’s body. Logically, since she disappeared from the bay where the transfer took place, the Aboriginals determined which lighter effected that cargo transfer and then checked its flight recorder data. They performed close sensor sweeps radiating out from its flight telemetries and discovered Manolescu’s corpse spinning slowly away from the lighter’s prior path. The subsequent question is, obviously, why would the person overseeing the transfer of the cargo from the Ladoga be killed?”

Olsirkos’ frown was replaced by wide-eyed revelation. “They cryocells loaded on the lighter were not the ones it had been sent to transfer. Some of the cargo was switched.”

Well, there is some hope for you after all. “Correct. According to our informers in the Aboriginal military structure, two coldslept personnel chosen to accompany the legation into Slaasriithi space were never removed from the Ladoga. Their cold cells were later found ‘misfiled’ in the same cargo bay.”

“So, the two coldsleepers who went in their place are infiltrators, sent to sabotage the Aboriginal envoy to the Slaasriithi?”

“Likely, but impossible to determine without investigating. Which we should have been doing for the past ten weeks.”

Olsirkos sounded like he wanted the change the topic. Desperately. “It is strange that the Aboriginals have not detained the crew of the lighter and questioned them.”

“More persistence in reviewing the data would have shown you that they tried and failed.” Shethkador changed the file displayed on the holoflat to a secure bulletin calling for the apprehension of two missing persons of interest: the Aboriginal female and male who had been the crew of the lighter.

“It is not conceivable that they could remain undetected on one of the fleet’s hulls,” Olsirkos asserted. “So where are they?”

Shethkador brought up a holograph of the interstellar region surrounding Sigma Draconis. He pointed into it: the red star closest to Sigma Draconis flared in response. “The two renegades are almost certainly here: system V 1581. We know that Visser, one of the human Consuls, and a significant intelligence chief named Richard Downing commenced transit to Earth aboard the prize ship Changeling the same day that the Slaasriithi departed. I suspect that the two fugitives, furnished with false identities, were already aboard Changeling when she shifted out to V 1581. So, we must journey there and intercept them before they can flee to Earth: they are the only remaining clues to the rest of the plot.”

Olsirkos was lost again. “The rest of the plot?”

Shethkador rose. “I must recontact the Autarchs. They require an update.” He stared hard at Olsirkos. “The rest of the plot is obvious, or should be. The two who operated the lighter could not have had long-standing orders to switch the cold cells on the Ladoga. Only three days earlier, the Slaasriithi had not even arrived in Sigma Draconis, much less invited the Aboriginals to visit their home world. So if you find the persons who signaled the lighter’s crew to switch the cold cells, you will ultimately find the persons who were ready to launch this plot in a matter of hours.” Shethkador brought up the communications logs. One entry was flagged in red. “The day that the Slaasriithi departed, there was a routine communications test, to assess mechanical readiness. Read who oversaw the test.”

Olsirkos stared, swallowed, managed to get out the words: “It was the recently promoted trainee, the one who killed the former second communications officer in a duel.”

Shethkador nodded, walked to the hatchway, exited, made briskly for the Sensorium, Olsirkos trailing behind. “I will make my Reification to contact the Autarchs swift. I will explain that we must return to V 1581 to recover Red Lurker. In actuality, we shall be following the path of the crew of the lighter and whoever contacted them and is behind this plot. You have half an hour quietly detain and interrogate the communications trainee who won the duel. In the interrogation, presume that you will have to use drugs and extreme measures. Presume that the subject is not a knowledgeable part of the greater plot. Discover how he used the communications testing routines to send the necessary message to the lighter crew, who gave him the message, how he knew where to send it and when.” Shethkador paused before the threshold of the Sensorium. “Impress me by succeeding in this, and I shall overlook your signal failures in detecting this plot from the outset,” he lied.

“I am my Srin’s right hand,” Olsirkos breathed with a low bow.

“Yes,” Shethkador muttered. Which would make me half a cripple, if it were true.