Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 10
Beyond the Eastern Fringelands, BD+56 2966 Two (“Turkh’saar”)
“Commodore Riordan, something’s — it’s gone crazy down there, sir.”
“Put it on the main screen, Doctor. Duncan, lasers in PDF mode, railgun at the ready.”
The tree-top view of the clearing toward which they were descending was abruptly replaced by an overhead plot of the biosigns in the region. The slow wave of approaching signatures to their south, and the tight cluster of signatures nearly beneath them, were becoming frenetic churns of disparate activity, as if some invisible foot had kicked this collective ant’s nest and sent all its denizens scurrying madly about.
“Doctor Sleeman, I’m going to need to you take over all remote sensor assets as well.”
“Aye, sir. What do you need?”
“Four of the semiautonomous light-duty quadrotors.”
“Are we close enough now to distinguish between Hkh’Rkh and human biosigns?”
“Crudely, sir. Mostly based on the size of the thermal outline due to mass differential, but I’m starting to get outlines, too.”
“Good. Sort those biosigns.”
The thermal smudges on the map became blue triangles and red dots.
“You’re using blue as human elements?”
“As per our prior conversation, sir.”
“Doctor, just to be clear. I don’t — I can’t — presume the humans on Turkh’saar are friendlies.” Riordan studied the patterns of distribution and movement, which made slightly more sense now. The human signatures were in the process of abandoning what appeared to be a small base, fanning out as they moved rapidly north and east.
“Our extraction targets are not moving directly toward their main base,” Karam observed.
“Probably, because they’re professional enough not to lead their enemies straight to it.”
Duncan’s voice was slow. “Could it be a trap, that their retreat is a ruse to draw in the Hkh’Rkh?” Several of the easternmost red spots were veering toward the fleeing blue triangles. In all probability, they’d caught some hint of hurried movement ahead, were making for it. Other red dots were pushing forward aggressively, but in an ever-widening and irregular pattern: they knew they were closing in on something, but didn’t know exactly what or where it was, and eagerness was eroding their careful patrol intervals.
Riordan rubbed his chin. “That doesn’t look like a trap. The humans would be holding a tighter formation, trying to lead the Hkh’Rkh into a finite kill zone. They just bolted.”
“Maybe because they heard our thrusters and fans,” Karam put in sourly.
“Probably, but there was no helping it: we had to attempt to swing around to deploy our ground teams close to the objective. Otherwise they would have been walking right into the middle of that trainwreck down there. Major Solsohn, tell Sergeant Fanny I need his people ready to go.”
“They’re standing by.”
“Doctor, what are the quadrotors picking up?”
“Not much, sir. Comms are infrequent, I don’t have eyes-on anybody yet, not with all the trees and their weird canopy.”
An interesting phenomenon worthy of investigation — assuming they survived to do so. “Send two of the quadrotors after the humans. Keep them slightly to their south. Try to get me visuals.”
“That will put our ‘rotors between the humans and the advancing Hkh’Rkh, sir.”
“That’s the idea, Doctor. Place the other two ‘rotors half a klick south of the abandoned base. I want to have eyes on any Hkh’Rkh who might be closing in on it.”
“Aye, sir. I’m getting queries from Wedge One. They want to know if they should land or continue to hover?”
“They hover and hold. Karam, when I call for it, I want the fastest NOE course down into the base’s clearing.”
Tsaami’s reply was a mutter. “Already prepared to execute.”
“Dr. Sleeman, any sign of reaction from the Hkh’Rkh vehicles behind their skirmish line?”
“They’ve slowed. No active sensors, if that’s what you’re watching for.”
“It is indeed. Keep our laser-sensors wide-eyed, Doctor. If they detect us at long range, that’s what they’ll use for targeting.”
“Yes, sir. One anomaly of interest.”
“There were two, maybe three Hkh’Rkh biosigns that charged ahead and reached the base. But they’ve disappeared.”
Karam twisted to look back at Caine. “Bunker? Cave?”
Riordan shrugged. “Guess we’re going to find out. Time for us to skip across the treetops and see what’s going on.”
“We might lose LoS commo with Wedge One when we hop into the other clearing, sir.”
“That’s unavoidable. If Wedge One has enemy contact, she is authorized to use broadcast. Now, let’s go, Mr. Tsaami. Major Solsohn, stand to your weapons.”
“Haven’t taken my fingers off the relays, sir.”
Puller lurched forward. The rush pushed them back in their couches. Karam turned. “You want me to land right away?”
“No; bring us up short, just over the clearing’s northern tree line. I want a look at the LZ before we commit.”
“Roger that. Coming up on line-of-sight…now.” As the words were leaving Tsaami’s mouth, Sleeman snapped the mainscreen over to a bow view with light intensification and thermal imaging.
Riordan saw the two vehicles the humans had left behind — and for a second, was unable to maintain a cogent stream of thought: both were twentieth century helicopters. As a defense analyst with decent historical knowledge, he’d seen plenty of photos of one of the models, had watched it whup-whup-whup across the screen of old films. It was a UH-1, officially labeled the Iroquois, but commonly known as a Huey, or — if not fitted with various weapons or other outboard systems — a “slick.”
The other helicopter was a Russian design: a workhorse of the Soviet forces, but not an epochal icon. But most importantly — and improbably — they were not wrecks. The surrounding gear, fuel drums, and flightline paraphernalia indicated that they were not merely operational, but on standby. Or at least, they had been until a few minutes ago.
“Biosigns?” Riordan’s query came out as a croak. His throat had gone suddenly dry.
Sleeman shook her head. “None in the clearing, but do you see behind the…uh, the helicopters? There’s a pile of rocks. I think I caught a glimmer from there. Reflected heat, nothing direct.”
“Impossible to confirm. But with that ghost-like waver and disappearance — yes, I think so.”
“Can’t tell. I suppose some humans could have holed up in there, not come out yet.”
Caine felt two instincts tugging at him. The correct one, inculcated by both recent training and experience, was to remain on Puller’s bridge, coordinate activities, manage resources, stay focused on the big picture, and be ready to react swiftly and effectively. But on the other hand —
If the biosigns were Hkh’Rkh, they would be small in number. Probably just the two or three who had sprinted ahead of their forces. And no one but he had experience contacting them. If the objective was to avoid a firefight, to keep this from becoming a conflict between legitimate CTR troops and the local Patrijuridicate colonial forces, then he needed to be present in order to maximize those chances. Unless —
He toggled his collarcom. “Sergeant Fanny?”
“Do any of your personnel have experience with the Know-It-All add on?”
“The what, sir?”
Well, that doesn’t sound promising. “Are you familiar with the NOAH system?”
“Oh, that. Um…yes, that’s the, uh, the…”
Duncan filled in. “NOAH is a Network Overseen Automated Helper: an automated personal assistant. NOAH-ITAL is the military model: ‘Independent Tactical Augmentation Link.'”
“Yes, sir. Heard of it, sir. Never used it. None of us have.”
Solsohn turned toward Caine. “But I have, sir. Many times. And I think I see why you’re asking. I’ve worked with the ‘culture coach’ subroutine. We had to use it on field ops, particularly when we were in AOs where we didn’t speak the language, or –”
“I’m glad to know that, Major, but like me, you’re not leaving the bridge of this ship. You’re needed at gunnery, so we don’t have the time for you to boot up the Know-It-All, make sure it supports the new Hkh’Rkh interface, and then outfit you with the wearable. For now, we’ll do this old school. Mr. Tsaami, take us down. Sergeant Fanny, prepare to deploy.”
* * *
Riordan watched Fanny lead his team out in a widening search pattern. On smaller screens, their individual helmet cams showed their crouching progress past the helicopters and toward a gap between the upthrust rock spurs behind them: evidently a cave mouth. “Sergeant, a quick word about dealing with the Hkh’Rkh at night. Their unaided dark vision is significantly better than ours, but the LITI goggles you’re wearing give you an immense advantage. However, they’ve got some rudimentary ocular IR sensitivity as well, so engage your thermoflage liners.”
“Engaged, sir. Cold cans are smart-compensating at lowest rate, sir.”
“Good. Now, let’s get a little more advance-warning. Have Somers deploy your creepers. Two into the cave, the rest on walk-about.”
“You want us to set their patrol circuit, sir?”
“Negative, Sergeant. Dr. Sleeman will control them. The creepers will fan out and help the quad-rotors maintain a perimeter five hundred meters out from your current position.”
“Copy that, sir. Letting the creepers go.”
The small robots — shaped like spider-centipede hybrids — streamed around the upthrust stones and toward the scattered copses behind. “At the first sign of a Hkh’Rkh approaching that picket line –”
“I’ll let you know immediately, sir,” Sleeman interrupted.
Two of the clockwork-insectoids disappeared into the dark maw of the cave, their passive sensors intensifying the light and searching for heat sources. It wasn’t long before they detected three Hkh’Rkh biosigns: two creeping carefully toward the rear of the cave, a third, no more than a dim haze disappearing.
“That third biosign: how sure are you that it is Hkh’Rkh?”
“Over ninety percent, sir. It would require two large humans to put out that much heat. And one would have to be carrying the other piggyback for the motion of the two sources to look so unitary.”
“Are any of them putting out radio signals?”
“None that I’m detecting si — wait; yes. One of the closer two, but it’s faint, degraded by the cave walls.”
“Likelihood that other Hkh’Rkh will receive it?”
“Uncertain, sir. Not knowing the geological properties around the cave, it’s entirely possible that –”
Riordan stood. “Sergeant Fanny, secure both the mouth of the cave and your present six. I’ll be there in two minutes.”