Raising Caine – Snippet 31
“That’s coming back on line. They didn’t tag us too hard. And now that the Slaasriithi ship is powering up again –”
“Major, before her power comes back, she could take another burst of rail gun penetrators to her power plants or engine. Or bridge. And then you’d be stuck facing the attacker on your own.” Riordan dropped his voice. “Bannor, someone has got to live to report this. This shuttle is going down hard and I don’t know how many — if any — of us are going to walk away from it. And remember: this is happening just one system away from the Slaasriithi homeworld.
Bannor’s reply was not immediate. “Sir, are you thinking that this might be a prelude to a general attack?”
“No. If it was, our first warning would have been an enemy battle cruiser showing up and converting us all into subatomic particles. But it’s equally alarming that someone is playing this kind of hard ball deep inside Slaasriithi space for a lesser reason. The Custodians have to be informed, as well as both our government and that of our hosts. And Puller is the only hardened target on this shooting range who just might get out in one piece. You’re small enough and fast enough to hide and survive to tell the tale. So get going. Now.”
“But Downing said –”
“Major Rulaine, you’ve discharged Downing’s orders. Now you’re taking mine. Log it as my responsibility, and contest the order later, if you like, but right now, you go!”
Caine had never heard Bannor sound glum before. High overhead, the darkened thruster of the Puller flickered back into life as the haze of the atmosphere began increasing, diffusing the twin pinpricks of the corvette’s drives. Within the space of two heartbeats, they vanished.
For the first time since the attack had begun, Riordan had a scant moment to pull back from immediate events and consider the bigger picture. Whoever was behind this attack had infiltrated one or more saboteurs into the legation within twenty-four hours of its being announced, and had sent an assault force unthinkably far into Slaasriithi space. The enemy was, by any conceivable measure, incredibly resourceful, bold, and dangerous.
Riordan found he was still looking at the spot of thickening sky where Puller had disappeared. I hope they make it. But if they don’t — Riordan activated the preset comm link for the Slaasriithi ship, asked over his shoulder: “Is the channel for Ambassador Yiithrii’ah’aash’s ship secure?”
“Scrambled and encrypted,” Raskolnikov confirmed. “Your two minutes are up, Captain. Things become interesting, now.”
“Acknowledged,” Riordan replied, activating the link and listening for a reply. As he waited, he glanced out the cockpit.
They had descended far enough that Disparity’s planetary curve had leveled out into a horizon line. The clouds were coming up at them, along with stratified drifts of faint green dust. Yiithrii’ah’aash had mentioned atmospheric spore layers, many of which soaked up and reflected UV, thereby adding to the planet’s surreal green-blue appearance. Auroras flickered high above: BD +02 4076, being at the approximate peak of its nine-year solar activity cycle, was emitting a growing wave of solar particles. Which meant sensor degradation and a better chance for Puller to get away. Conversely, it portended radio problems, possibly an impending blackout —
The channel opened to Yiithrii’ah’aash’s ship; it sounded like a stone-cutter’s saw accompanied by a chorus of banshees being boiled in oil. “Caine Riordan?”
“Yes, Ambassador. Auroras are degrading our communications, I think.”
“They are. Have you made planetfall? I do not have enough sensor assets available to track your progress.”
“Negative, Ambassador. We are approaching the highest cloud layers. Since this may be our last communication until the solar activity fades, I wanted to confer on a course of action.”
“I agree. In order to ensure your survival on the planet, I recommend –”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Ambassador, but frankly, I’m more concerned about your survival.”
“That is welcome, Caine Riordan, but we must first see to your safety. It is our responsibility that such dangers have befallen you.”
“Ambassador, with all due respect, that cannot be the first priority for either one of us. We have to ensure that this incursion on your space, and the attempted assassination of the entire legation, is reported with all possible speed. So, first things first: is your ship still capable of making shift?”
“Caine — Captain Riordan: we will not leave you behind. We must exert all efforts to –”
“Ambassador, we’re running out of time. Given that you are arguing against shifting, I deduce that you are still capable of doing so. And you must. As quickly as possible.”
“We have offensive systems aboard our ship which are perfectly capable of –”
“Ambassador, your ship only has dual purpose lasers that fulfill both offensive and point defense requirements, correct?”
“Correct.” The reply was reluctant.
“So, they don’t have the distance or power of purely offensive systems. And from what I can see, your ship does not have a spinal main weapon, does it?”
“It does not.”
“Then it would be reckless for you to stay and fight. You’ve already suffered significant damage. The next hit could destroy your ability to shift. On the other hand, if you preaccelerate immediately, you will be sure to shift, report, and bring back a rescue mission.”
The two second pause seemed to last two minutes. “Your logic is unassailable. I shall undertake actions that allow us to shift more promptly than usual.” A new form of static started encroaching on the channel: it was like bagpipes playing through a thickening blanket of white noise.
“Ambassador, your signal is degrading.”
“That is the planetary defense system,” Yiithrii’ah’aash explained. “Since your ship has crossed the security threshold of the planet without being expressly cleared to do so, the defense system has begun to jam all signals.”
“You mean, all legation signals?”
“No: all signals. When the planetary defense system perceives an unauthorized entry, it initiates what you would call a communications ‘lock down.’ This way, reconnaissance landings cannot relay any intelligence or targeting data to enemies in orbit or beyond.” Yiithrii’ah’aash’s words were beginning to bleed into each other as the signal continued to erode.
“Ambassador, what special methods are you employing to achieve shift more rapidly than usual?”
“We will make for this system’s automated port facilities.”
“They are not here, near Disparity?”
“No. They are in the leading Trojan point of the first orbit. We have a solar array there, constantly fabricating anti-matter.”
Yes, but if the enemy has learned about it…”Do you have sufficient anti-matter for a shift?”
“Yes, although not enough to shift with minimal preacceleration. We would require an extra three days of preacceleration to make up for the partial insufficiency of anti-matter.”
“Then that’s what you must do.”
“Caine Riordan, that would delay our return by two additional days. And if these attackers attempt to follow you planetside, that could mean the difference between life and death.”
“It could mean life or death for a lot more people, humans and Slaasriithi alike, if you don’t bypass the automated station. If you travel there, you could discover that the enemy has more ships in system, possibly waiting to ambush you as you approach the facility. And if they seize its anti-matter reserves, they will be able to swiftly refuel whatever ship brought them here, and undertake whatever energy-expensive operations they need to overcome this planet’s defenses. And then exterminate us.” Riordan paused; the channel was degrading even more rapidly. “There’s only one way you can prevent that.”
“I presume that your communication net allows you to interface directly with the refueling station’s controls?”
Caine drew a deep breath. “Then here is what you have to do.”