Raising Caine – Snippet 34

Raising Caine – Snippet 34

Chapter Thirty-Two

Southern extents of the Third Silver Tower; BD +02 4076 Two (“Disparity”)

The battered TOCIO shuttle started down through the bank of clouds that threatened to obscure the coastal river valley toward which they had been descending. The cottony whiteness that swallowed them quickly became an ugly grey. “Heavy weather,” Raskolnikov muttered.

Caine gripped the edge of his seat as a cross current buffeted them, caught a glimpse of the instrument board. Three new orange lights had appeared among the ones monitoring the port side fuselage. “Have we lost airframe integrity?”

“Not yet,” Qin Lijuan said calmly. “However, stress alerts are increasing. No matter how high I keep the nose, those port-side holes are catching air, increasing drag. It does not help that some of the largest debris went in the variable-thruster intake.”

“Hard to keep her flying straight?”

“Yes, but the larger problem is that we are no longer capable of making a vertical landing. Also, the heat shielding there is no longer uniform. Even though the damage is on the dorsal surface, and even though we leveled out into a slow reentry slalom once we descended through the thirty kilometer mark, there is no way to stop the drag from widening the breaches.”

“My esteemed colleague is saying that our shuttle wants to shake apart and she is not letting it do so.” Raskolnikov punctuated his sardonic synopsis with a wide grin.

Caine mustered a smile. “Thanks: I got that. Any idea how far down this cloud cover goes?”

Raskolnikov, all business again, shook his head. “No. It may go right down — what is your expression? — to the deck. Variable wave sensing suggests it begins to thin out at eight-hundred meters, but beyond that, who knows? It might be fog, mist, mixed, raining, or clear.”

“Eight hundred meters?” Caine’s stomach tightened and descended. “That doesn’t give you a lot of time to find a good landing zone.”

“You are right, Captain: it does not. But the river beneath us had many straight stretches.”

“So: a water landing.”

Raskolnikov grinned that crazy grin again. “If we are lucky. Now, Captain, you must return to seat.” He paused. “One at midsection, please.”

Caine nodded. “I’ll make sure the others get out. I’ve memorized the emergency exits, in case the hatches are jammed.”

“Horosho,” Raskolnikov smiled. He glanced over at Qin Lijuan. “Perhaps I shall take it from here, yes?”

Egoless, Lijuan ceded him the controls. Nodding to the two of them, Caine cycled through the iris valve and moved quickly to the midsection of the craft.

He passed Ben Hwang, who opened his mouth to speak —

Caine shook his head, got into a couch across the aisle from Gaspard, who seemed to be concentrating on a deep-breathing exercise, his eyes closed.

As the three jammed windows in the passenger section darkened even more and rain began hammering down on the shuttle, Caine finished belting in — and started when Gaspard’s voice announced, so calm as to be eerie: “For the record, Captain Riordan, I consider this crisis to be the province of security management. I shall not gainsay your orders.”

Caine glanced over at Gaspard. Other than his reclosing lips, the ambassador was completely motionless, as if in a meditative state. “Thank you, Ambassador.” If Gaspard responded, Caine missed it.

His collarcom buzzed. “Riordan here.”

“Captain, this is Qin. You are strapped in?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Please push your seat’s paging button.” Riordan did. “I am activating your seat’s data link. Please put on the viewing monocle you will find in the seat pouch.” Riordan had the small video-display device settled over his ear and in front of his left eye before she had finished the sentence. The small eyepiece flickered, then showed him the ground rushing up swiftly: a jungle cut in two by a meandering ribbon of rain-speckled river. “We will make our final descent soon.”

But in the meantime, you’re trying to preemptively kill me with terror? But Caine understood the real reason the pilots were showing him the view from the nose of the shuttle: “I’ll call out the steps back here.”

“And keep watch for the best way to exit the shuttle. If we are fortunate, there will be an option other than the dorsal hatch.”

“Understood. There are three window covers jammed half-open back here. Can you unfreeze them?”

“We tried several times when we undocked. We have tried at least once a minute since then. We suspect that the sabotage created a power surge which disabled those circuits. However, those windows would only shatter if hit directly. I advise you not to worry about them.” Which was a nice way of saying: if that glass breaks, it will be the very least of your problems. “We will be down within the minute. Please prepare the passengers.”

In the data monocle, the river rose closer; in the distance, it seemed to narrow and bend. “Everyone,” Riordan said loudly. “We are making a water landing.”

“What?” shrieked Nasr. Ben Hwang released a long shuddering sigh — just before the two-toned crash landing alert started blaring.

Caine raised his voice over it. “This vehicle’s tilt-thrusters are disabled, so we are landing runway-style. But we haven’t seen any airfields or received any communications from the ground. Fortunately, we’ve got the best pilots in the business up in the cockpit and they’ve found a good stretch of river to put down on.”

“Are there rafts? Are there life-pre –?”

“You’ll find flotation packs under your seat. They clip on to your duty suits’ shoulder clasps and will auto-deploy the moment you hit water. Rafts will too.” I hope. In his left eye, the river loomed large, and then suddenly glistened: the shuttle had passed beyond the shadowing storm clouds. Faint stretches of foggy silt and rocks shone up through the translucent water. This river was shallow: maybe too shallow. The camera crept closer to the rippling water, the strange foliage speeding past on either bank. “Everyone: crash positions. I will count us down. Five meters, four, three –”

Caine didn’t see the long mass of subsurface rock at first; just the rapidly lapping wavelets it threw up as the current skimmed over its flat expanse. His mouth was open to shout a warning to Raskolnikov —

Who obviously saw it. The shuttle banked quickly to the left, rose up to hop over the rock — and inadvertently dipped the leading corner of its left wing into the river.

The sudden drag pulled the shuttle sharply to port. The engines roared as Raskolnikov fought its nose back to centerline, powering it upward. But as the wing pulled out of the water, Caine felt a transverse shiver run from the left side of the fuselage and pass under his seat. He glanced out his half-sealed window in time to see the pock-marked section of the wing buckle and then shred.

Freed of that drag, the shuttle suddenly pulled in the direction of the intact starboard wing, even as it jerked down toward the water. The starboard thruster screamed again; Raskolnikov had pulsed it to re-center the nose. Which dropped swiftly as soon as he eased off the thrust: the vehicle’s ability to glide was wholly gone. Caine had a split-second monocle view of the rushing water leaping up at him —

The impact both threw him forward against the straps and the couch-back in front of him. And then — nothing: a surreal moment as the craft skipped off the river’s surface like a stone. The fiber-optic bow camera sent a static-littered image of the nose rising, then falling again —

Toward a long, flat wave-crested rock.

The second impact was so hard that Caine’s teeth snapped together painfully. At the same instant, his whole abdomen spasmed, his viscera jumping forward against his stomach muscles. Several shrieks cut through sounds of shearing metal, splintering composites, shattering glass — all of which was loudest from the bridge and the belly of the shuttle.

Which was still skipping forward along the river, yawing as it went. Sharp jolts hammered up through Caine’s body, as if he was riding a sled down jagged marble stairs. There was a final dull thump — and then, stillness.

“Survival packs out; filter masks on!” Caine shouted. He struggled free of the straps and stepped down into rising water. Shit. “By names; sound off!”

Voices shouted back: “Hwang!” “Betul!” “Gaspard!” “Xue!” “Veriden!” “Hirano!” “Eid!” “Macmillan!” “Salunke!”

The still intact window showed water lapping along the half-amputated portside lifting surface. The remains of the wing were canted slightly backward: the tail section was in deeper water. Xue splashed forward, glanced at the emergency airlock door just aft of the bridge’s now severely-deformed iris valve. Caine nodded: “Go.”

Macmillan, the furthest in the back, calmly announced, “Smoke coming out of the engineering spaces, Captain.”

Caine, who was helping Gaspard to yank his survival pack out of the cubby under his acceleration couch, paused, sniffed. “That’s not a fire. That’s steam.”

“Not so bad then.” Eid smiled hopefully through chattering teeth.

“No: it’s bad,” Dora corrected. “This shuttle is a long range model. That means a small nuke plant for powering the MAP thrusters.”

Hirano frowned. “But if there is no leak, then –”

Caine gently pushed her toward the forward airlock Xue had opened; the air pushing in was pungent, thick. “Ms. Hirano, we’re not worried about radiation. If the plant is hot and immersed in water, the temperature differential could cause it to shatter. Violently.”

Hirano Mizuki’s eyes were wide and her gait swift as she went through the forward exit. Ben Hwang, favoring his right side, approached. “Any word from the bridge?”

Caine met his eyes. “I don’t think there is any bridge. Not anymore.” He glanced at the iris-valve. Something had struck the other side hard enough to buckle the overlapping plates in toward the passenger compartment.

Hwang nodded and followed after Hirano.

Macmillan was the last out, carrying two extra packs. “Rations,” he explained. “I could go back to the locker and –”

Looking over the IRIS agent’s shoulder, Riordan saw that the water was waist deep around the shivered door into the aft compartment, and wisps of steam were rising up from it. “No time for that. And you’d parboil yourself.” Caine bringing up the rear, they hurried out the exit.

It was a short jump down into shallows sloping up toward a marshy bank. Which was actually part of a riverhead: a stream meandered out of the frond-and-tube-weed fen in which the shuttle had buried its nose.

Or rather, what was left of its nose. The entire starboard side of the cockpit was in shreds, much of it missing. The port side had been squashed, accordioned up and back against the passenger compartment.

Macmillan put a hand on Caine’s shoulder. “We were lucky to get out. Let’s not stick around to get blown up.”

Nodding, he followed Macmillan and the others up the narrow bank and into the tangle of alien vegetation that it was tempting, but altogether wrong, to call a jungle.

* * *

The column of steam that rose up from the shuttle became thickest approximately thirty minutes after they had put a kilometer between themselves and the wreck. An hour after that, it had shrunk back to its original size. A further thirty minutes reduced it to a wispy curlicue.

Caine turned off his collarcom, gestured for the others to do the same. There was no detectable signal other than the band-spanning white noise, so calling for help was pointless. Besides, preserving the remaining battery power meant retaining the ability to communicate with each other in emergencies, albeit over very short ranges.

“So now what do we do?” asked Nasr Eid.

Riordan stared directly at Nasr. “Now, we protect ourselves and take a fast inventory of our gear.”

As the rest of the group started opening their packs, Hirano Mizuki stared around at the foliage. “Protect ourselves? From what?”

Riordan’s unvoiced reaction — Good grief: civilians! — brought him to a startled mental halt: what had happened to his self-identity as a “civilian”? He wasn’t sure where it had fallen away — and it hadn’t fully. He wasn’t enamored of imposing military discipline or having it imposed upon him. But then again, discipline and its trappings — ranks, protocols, traditions — did not define the difference between a soldier and a civilian. The difference was in outlook. Brilliant civilian researcher Hirano Mizuki stared into the shadowy reaches of alien underbrush and saw no reason for caution. Caine, on the other hand, saw an unguarded perimeter in unknown terrain with no one assigned to patrol or watch it.

Riordan smiled gently at Mizuki. “Ms. Hirano, I hope that there is nothing to fear in this brave new world. And we shall not go looking for any trouble while we’re here. But until we know we are safe, we will take precautions to deal with trouble, should it come looking for us. Am I clear?”

 

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