Marque of Caine – Snippet 19
Refueling Orbit around Planet IV, Wolf 424 A
For the thirty-second time, Riordan started his day at Wolf 424 A by turning on the commplex. Nine hours ago, just before rolling into his bunk, he’d finished his fourth complete read-through of all the available material on the Dornaani, taking notes as he went. Today, he’d start–
The walls emitted the distinctive double-yowl of the emergency klaxon: unidentified contact.
Riordan was on his feet, moving toward his rack. “Q-command: hi-gee configuration.” His bunk began converting into an acceleration couch, a pressure-rated cover rotating up into seal-ready position.
Just as he reached it, his intercom chirped through a flurry of tones: message from the bridge.
“Commodore, the captain asks you join her. All possible haste, sir.”
Riordan smiled. “Are the Dornaani behaving oddly?”
“No, sir. It’s not the Dornaani. It’s the Arat Kur.”
* * *
Peña was already on the bridge when Riordan arrived, half drifting, half glide-walking into the tiered chamber. Ed reached out an arm to ensure that Caine stopped where he intended.
Riordan waved it off as he got a grip on the intended handhold, smiled crookedly. “Not a total newb.”
Peña shrugged, didn’t say anything. It was unclear if that was simply his natural taciturnity or because he decided not to contradict his superior.
Schoeffel came swim-dancing in from the other side, hooked a finger at Caine. “Come take a look.” She adjusted her drift with a slight deck-kick and bulkhead push; that angled her down toward the sensor station. She jabbed a finger at a cluster of five red motes. “Those bogeys are Arat Kur or I’m a shave tail.”
Riordan took hold of the back of the sensor officer’s seat, pulled himself closer. “Bring up whatever data you have on their thruster emissions.”
“Mister–eh, Commodore Riordan, like I told the captain, they’re still eight light minutes out. We don’t have enough–“
Schoeffel nodded at the officer. “Do it.” Face suddenly devoid of expression, he complied.
Riordan glanced at the density of the particle trail, the heat of the exhaust, and its approximate shape. Nodding, he checked the acceleration of the oncoming craft. “Definitely not one of ours. Anything we have with that kind of performance leaves a much bigger exhaust smudge and lots more particles.” He looked up at Schoeffel’s face, saw eagerness and concern in equal measures. “How’d you identify them at this range, Captain?”
“Same way you did: saw roach combat drones up close and personal, four years ago.”
Riordan glanced at the navplot near the center of the bridge. “So where the hell did they come from?”
Schoeffel drifted toward the faux 3-d chart table, shrank the scale: both of Wolf 424’s red dwarfs came into view. The guidon indicating the Down-Under‘s position was tucked behind what appeared to be a blue marble orbiting the closer star. She pointed to it. “That’s us, snugged in on the dark side of the only gas giant, not quite as big as Neptune.” She pointed to the five red motes. The computer projection traced their known vectors and then extrapolated backward, showed them as emerging from around the far side of Wolf 424 A. “Didn’t see them coming, given the angle.”
“The angle?” asked Ed, who had drifted closer.
Schoeffel pointed impatiently at distant Wolf 424 B, which was mostly eclipsed by the primary star. “Look. The planet and two stars are almost in syzygy. From our position at the gas giant, Wolf 424 B is almost in perfect opposition and only a few degrees off the ecliptic.”
Ed nodded. “So, when they came from the far side of 424 A, probably a week or so ago, they had the other star–424 B–at their back. Sensors couldn’t pick them out.”
Schoeffel nodded; her expression suggested that Peña had risen slightly in her opinion. “Even if they were under thrust, our sensors would have had to stay fixed on exactly the right spot to have any chance of noticing any spectral wiggle their exhausts would have caused.” She glanced at Riordan. “Sorry, sir. This tub’s arrays are nothing like milspec.”
Caine nodded. “Which they were counting on. Just as they were counting on our main hull–and therefore, the main array–to be behind the gas giant, shielding ourselves from flares while we refueled. Textbook. What do you think they are, Captain?”
“Drones. No doubt about it. Ratio of acceleration to approximate mass says those platforms are compact, no mass or volume dedicated to life support.”
Riordan looked at the navplot again. “I agree. Which is why there’s probably another piece on the game board that we haven’t seen yet.”
“Their shift-carrier, sir?” The sensor officer pointed behind Wolf 424 A. “Almost still on the far side, where we can’t see her.”
Riordan shook his head. “I’m thinking there’s something a lot closer to us.”
The captain frowned at the navplot, then raised an eyebrow. “A control craft.”
Riordan nodded. “We are almost two AU from 424 A: like you said, eight light minutes, more or less. If these are unpiloted vehicles, then their actions are being controlled in one of three ways. One: from their probably point of origin, which means a sixteen minute command cycle. Two: they are in a fully autonomous attack mode. Or, three: there’s a control ship that’s probably within a few light seconds.”
Schoeffel nodded. “The last option is the only one that makes sense. Those drones will be dead twenty times over if they have to wait sixteen minutes for orders, and autonomous controls might not engage the priority target.” She looked meaningfully at Riordan. “But if they’ve got a control ship out there, it must be lying doggo.”
Riordan scanned the plot. “Does this gas giant have any satellites?”
“None. And only one other starward planet within an AU.”
“Then it’s probably a very small craft maintaining a position on the opposite side of this gas giant.”
Schoeffel shook her head. “I doubt it. We’ve had automated fuel skimmers making runs around the bright side. Never got a sensor return.”
Riordan raised an eyebrow. “Were the skimmers running autonomously?”
Schoeffel nodded, then grinned ruefully. “Yeah. Rudimentary sensor package slaved to even more rudimentary auton.” She maneuvered closer to him. “That means they could have doggo drones back there with the control ship.”
Riordan nodded. “Expect these bogeys to make a pass at such high relative velocity that you have damn little chance to hit them. The doggo drones could then swing around from the blind side of the gas giant and clean up whatever the first group didn’t get.”
Schoeffel glanced at the plot. “Judging from the bogeys’ rate of approach, they’ll cover those two light seconds in about ten minutes. At most.”
Riordan nodded. “Right. So how can I–?”
“You can go with Mr. Peña, Commodore,” Schoeffel interrupted. She nodded to Peña, who drifted unusually close to Riordan. “We have a contingency for this, but we don’t have a lot of time.” She nodded aft. “So, smartly now.”
“Captain–” Riordan stopped, momentarily caught between his resolve to survive and save Elena, and his reflex to never leave comrades to fight in his stead.
Apparently sensing that, Schoeffel pushed closer, her breath soured by anxiety: “Commodore, you’ve got to go now.”
“But the mission–“
“You are the mission,” Ed added from behind. It was the first time Caine had heard any emphasis in his otherwise monotone voice. “C’mon, sir. We’ve got to go.”
Riordan felt rage, gratitude, shame, looked to find words, couldn’t, knew every passing second was an unacceptable risk.
He turned and launched himself into a long glide back toward the entry.
* * *
Once they were inside the keel-following shuttle-car, Peña nodded for Caine to strap in. Caine did–just as the car’s sudden acceleration almost threw him out of his seat. They were pulling more than a gee.
Peña smiled slightly. “The Old Lady has overridden the safety parameters. We’ll be there in about ninety seconds.”
“Aft cargo moorings.”
Riordan frowned, then realized. “Not all of those bulk cargo containers are filled with routine stores, are they?”
Peña shook his head, watched the overhead transit monitor plot their progress down the keel.
Riordan tapped his collarcom. “Access command channel. Authorization: Riordan One.” Bridge chatter abruptly emerged from his tiny communicator, as well as one-sided conversations with engineering, flight operations, and gunnery. The latter was a woefully short exchange: as a commercial shift-carrier, the Down-Under had no offensive systems, just point-defense fire lasers for splashing inbound warheads.
Peña seemed distracted by the chatter, as if he didn’t want to listen to it but couldn’t keep from doing so. When he saw Caine studying him, he looked away. Quickly.
Suddenly, Caine understood. “You and Schoeffel sure did have me fooled. Are you two still an item, or is that long past?”
Peña sighed. “Past. Had to be. Happened when we were serving.”
“And you were enlisted and she was an officer?”
He shrugged. “You know how it is. Even if people are willing to look the other way, the stable boy still can’t date the princess.”