by Charles E. Gannon
A chapter from Charles E. Gannon's newest novel (February 2017)
A new entry in the critically acclaimed Caine Riordan science fiction series by three-time Nebula
nominee Charles E. Gannon! Science fiction on a grand scale. Prequels Raising Caine, Trial by
Fire and Fire with Fire were all Nebula Award finalists. Charles E. Gannon is also the winner of
the Compton Crook Award.
Caine Riordan, fresh from serving as envoy to the aliens known as the Slaasriithi, has been given
yet another daunting task: apprehend raiders that are terrorizing a distant planet.
As difficulties mount, Caine becomes aware that the mission his superiors sent him to perform
may not be the one they actually hope he will achieve. Which means Caine may be forced to
choose between honoring a promise to friends or following orders--a choice that could
ultimately put him in front of a board of inquiry. Or a firing squad.
OUTER SYSTEM, BD+56 2966
Icy, bone-cracking cold. Like the winter he was nine and fell through the ice rimming a backwater
inlet of the Chesapeake. Only one of his legs had gone in all the way, but the ache in his femur and
tibia seemed ready to explode out through his skin, even as the frigid water burned down into its
nerve endings . . .
But this time that burning was entirely inside him, running the length of his skeleton, running in
and out of his heart, his brain, his groin: conduits of fire that made him flinch, groan--
--groan as loud as the voice which said, "We are sorry, Caine Riordan. But we have no choice.
You must awaken."
Riordan struggled to move, to turn his head, to open his eyes, to fight up through layers of subzero
molasses. Perhaps his eyes had already been open, because suddenly there were lights. But too
bright. With multiple halos around them all.
He reached to either side, discovered he was in a bed. Or in a pit. Or maybe a coffin. None of
which made any sense.
Nothing made any sense, Caine realized as he scrambled to escape the claustrophobic box. The
wheeling lights and surging sounds around him were unsteady, indistinct. His thoughts were a
jumble of images that had nothing to do with each other: a ruined Grecian temple; then another half
its size; explosions in jungles and massacres in cities; creatures and plants that seemed half vision
and half nightmare; and finally, the head of a child's doll, rolling out of a roiling mass of smoke and
debris in a war-torn Indonesian kempang . . .
Whether it was that last image, or the abruptness with which the fire streaming along his arteries
changed back into debilitating icewater, his attempt to clamber out of the box-coffin was derailed
by a fit of shivering . . . which quickly amplified into shakes so profound that his teeth did not merely
chatter but clacked together convulsively.
His fingers weakened, his grip slipped, and he tumbled out of the box-coffin, catching himself
unevenly. He swayed on his knees, still half-blind, discovering that the deck--or whatever was
beneath him--was not only hard, but was even colder than he was.
Hands steadied him, kept him from falling over. But no, they weren't hands. They were clusters
of prehensile tendrils, wrapping around his arms, his torso. He flinched away, horrified. "What--?
Get off! Get the hell off--!"
"Caine Riordan, it is I, Yiithrii'ah'aash. Do not fear. You are safe. My fellow Slaasriithi will help
you in every way possible. But we had to awaken you swiftly. We have employed drugs that
accelerate your metabolism and heavy doses of chemicals that mimic your body's own epinephrine
and endorphins, as well as neuromodulators and neurotransmitters. We apologize for the discomfort,
but we had no choice."
Yiithrii'ah'aash: the Slaasriithi ambassador. The one who had snatched him from death's door
after humanity's first diplomatic mission to his species ended in a furious firefight on the world
known as Disparity. Images and ideas started swirling slowly into logical alignment; currents of
order began surging up out of the frigid chaos. He realized he was clutching the side of the cold cell
in which he had been placed when they had departed Delta Pavonis. "This mix of chemicals; are you
sure it's safe? It's--very painful."
"We feared it would be." Yiithrii'ah'aash leaned into Caine's steadying field of vision, his
tetrahedral head tilting downward as the tendril clusters at the end of his long, tightly furred arms
gestured for the other Slaasriithi to resume assisting the human. "But our mission is in jeopardy.
Human skills may be required to ensure its safe continuation."
No longer disoriented, Riordan discovered himself surrounded by the slightly shorter but even
more lanky-limbed Slaasriithi that had been specially bred--or "engendered"--to dwell and work
in low- and zero-gee environments. Now glad for their steadying "hands," Caine rose slowly. "What
kind of jeopardy?"
Yiithrii'ah'aash straightened. Whereas his assistants resembled thick-bodied lemurs with
emaciated extremities, the Slaasriithi ambassador was more akin to a tall, digitigrade gibbon with
an ostrich neck. His pupilless mauve eyes, arrayed in equilateral triangles on each surface of his
tetrahedral head, considered the larger human for a long moment. "We are in danger of detection."
Caine's pain didn't fade, but suddenly, he was only distantly aware of it. "Where are we?" He
realized that his teeth had stopped chattering.
"At our destination: Turkh'saar. Or as your catalogues list it, system BD +56 2966."
Riordan started. "What's our situation?"
"We shall brief you as you recover. It is essential that your companions see that you are well."
"Well?" That's a pretty relative term right now…Caine's vision cleared enough to reveal his
surroundings. He was in the navy-issue cryobank module, lined with the cold cells in which they had
been conveyed from human space. He also realized that he was naked. "Ambassador, I should be
wearing clothes when I rejoin my crew."
Even as he said it, one of Yiithrii'ah'aash's assistants--subtaxic members of the pastorae
taxon--laid a folded navy duty suit over Riordan's sweat-slick left forearm. Flipping the unipiece
garment open, Caine discovered the underwear he'd been hoping to find. The Slaasriithi were quite
observant and were usually excellent at recalling and anticipating human customs, but found clothing
particularly baffling, having no nudity taboos or particular need for covering. He began pulling on
the regulation briefs, discovered they were a size too big as he scanned the rest of the module.
Shallow alcoves lined either bulkhead, each filled by a large white cold cell flanked by medical
gear. The nine bays closest to Riordan's own were scenes of considerable activity. The lids of the
cold cells were open. A sweat-shining human form was fumbling and shivering out of each high-tech
sarcophagus, attended by clusters of the space-bred pastorae. One or two of his team began retching.
Alarmed, Caine began pulling on the lower half of the duty-suit at the same moment he started
forward at a trot. "Are they okay?"
The pastorae did not exactly restrain him, but their hands slowed his progress enough that his
concerned haste did not result in yet another fall. "Your companions are well, Caine Riordan. Be at
ease." Yiithrii'ah'aash's voice was soothing, backed by a faint purr. "They had less concentrated
therapeutic infusions than yourself. It was essential that we awaken and orient you first, that you may
provide suitable guidance and leadership to them."
Riordan glanced at Melissa Sleeman, who, having recovered from her momentary nausea,
discovered that she was staring at Peter Wu's short, nude body. She blinked. He blushed and stared
back--which was the moment that Sleeman discovered that she herself was unclothed. She gasped
"There are medical gowns in each alcove," Riordan mumbled to the ambassador.
Yiithrii'ah'aash's sensor cluster fixed on him in what might have been quizzical regard. Caine
suddenly recalled the confusion the term "gown" had occasioned the last time it was used in
reference to medical garb. "I mean a cover, a wrap," he explicated.
"Ah. Yes, of course." Yiithrii'ah'aash sent a stream of liquid syllables down the length of the
cryobank module, prompting quick, efficient searches by the pastorae. Pale blue gowns were
promptly offered to the various humans, who fumbled them on with what seemed to be palsied
hands. Lithe, muscular Dora Veriden cursed her unsteadiness in a sulphurous mix of Spanish and
Although the Slaasriithi ambassador's familiarity with human idioms and customs was
incomplete, he was evidently expert at reading Caine's pensive expressions. "I assure you there is
no cause for concern. The cold cells are manufactured by your Commonwealth bloc and are quite
reliable and robust. Also, we have been able to refine your reanimation cycle. Our modifications
reduced the possibility of medical complications and enabled your accelerated return to awareness."
Caine exchanged nods with his almost fully dressed executive officer and friend, Bannor Rulaine,
before turning back to Yiithrii'ah'aash. "When did you commence our reanimation?"
"Six hours ago."
Well, that was certainly impressive. It usually took thirty-six hours for awakened cold-sleepers
to become ambulatory, another twelve to twenty-four to become fully functional. Whatever methods
the Slaasriithi had used to shorten this cycle would be extremely interesting and valuable to the
people in exosapient technical intelligence. Assuming that Caine could get the Slaasriithi to share
the details . . . "Ambassador, although I'm sure this unusual process was warranted, you did
circumvent our own reanimation protocols and systems. Did you seek permission to do so?"
Yiithrii'ah'aash was still for a moment; his neck twitched in surprise. "I did not consult the human
that your superiors left in waking oversight of your care. There was no time. It also seemed
unnecessary, since our collective interests are served by your swift reanimation."
"I don't disagree, Ambassador. But in my role as acting ambassador plenipotentiary, I must point
out that my government's medical experts will want to review the procedures and substances you
used. Otherwise, the issue of quarantines between our species could arise again."
Yiithrii'ah'aash was still for a moment, then his neck contracted slightly. His verbal response rode
over a series of clicks and a rough buzz: grudging compliance and a hint of amusement. "You shall
have the protocols and samples of the compounds we used." The clicks subsided, the buzz slid into
a faint purr. "It is good to see that your resourcefulness is unimpaired."
Riordan responded with a lopsided smile. "As you say, your reanimation methods are extremely
effective. Now, you mentioned a human who remained conscious during our journey?"
Nods and waves greeted Caine as he and Yiithrii'ah'aash moved slowly down the module's center
aisle. The Slaasriithi continued his explanation. "Your superior, Richard Downing, assigned a human
to watch over you and, I presume, to brief you upon reanimation."
"Brief us? About what?"
"New information has come to light about our destination and how recent events upon the
system's main world, Turkh'saar, may be amplifying political tensions in the Hkh'Rkh
Patrijuridicate. Furthermore, Mr. Downing was able to provide some additional forces for this
"Then why not send them instead of us?"
"Because they too are in cryogenic suspension and have been for some time."
Riordan heard the extra emphasis that Yiithrii'ah'aash had placed upon the final phrase. "Just how
long have they been in cold sleep?"
"Their last memories date from before your species became aware of what you label exosapients."
Caine stared at the Slaasriithi. "You mean, before the Convocation and the invasion of Earth?"
The ambassador's sensor cluster inclined slightly. "I infer they were part of the ground forces that
your late strategist Nolan Corcoran put into cryogenic suspension as a counterattack force to
accompany the fleet that you named Relief Task Force One."
Good grief, the amount of disorientation those sleepers will experience upon awakening--"How
long has it been since we were cold-slept and left Delta Pavonis?"
"Just over three of your months."
Riordan did the mental math, back-calculating along the calendar of frenzied recent events. "So
they've been asleep at least two years. Possibly more."
"That is consistent with what Mr. Downing intimated. It is also why we did not feel safe waking
them. They do not know of our, or any other, species. We feared that their reactions to our
unexpected appearance might be--unpredictable."
Well, Yiithrii'ah'aash's tact remained as extraordinary as ever. "I think that's a fair assessment,
Ambassador. I revise my initial reaction: you certainly made the right choice leaving them in cold
sleep. But you said that Downing left someone in charge of the mission?"
The Slaasriithi stared at Caine. "Yes. You."
"No, no. I mean, someone who stayed awake to oversee the welfare of those of us in cold sleep?"
"Yes. A Mister Duncan Solsohn. As I understand it, there was some tenuous personal connection
between him and Mr. Downing. It was a distant familial connection, I believe. I confess that the more
nebulous human associational matrices continue to elude my understanding."
"That's okay, Ambassador; sometimes, they elude my understanding, too."
"I beg your pardon: such relationships also elude your understa--? Ah, now I perceive: you speak
ironically. I am sure that if I were human, I would find your remark witty."
Caine was glad his self-worth was not vested in comedic aspirations. "Or maybe you wouldn't."
They had arrived at the docking hatchway that provided ingress to the corvette that had seen Caine
and his team through more than a few battles and tight spots: the UCS Puller. "Now, since you say
it's an emergency and there's no time to waste, how about you tell me why you felt it necessary to
jolt us out of cold sleep?"
Standing just beyond the gangway tube into Puller, Riordan double-checked the data that
Yiithrii'ah'aash had downloaded to his palmcomp while synopsizing its operational significance.
Hearing noise in the access tube, he looked up. Two of the starved-limbed, fireplug-torsoed lemur-Slaasriithi were approaching, followed at some distance by his team.
As the two space-adapted pastorae approached, Caine leaned toward the ambassador. "I didn't
think you'd want to risk your personnel on this mission."
"While we prefer to avoid risk, that is not our reason for asking you to perform this task. Rather,
success probability is maximized by the innate proficiencies with which your species' evolution has
equipped you. These two pastorae are accompanying you in order to ensure that your personnel
master the replacement systems with which we have finalized the repairs to your corvette."
"Which systems have you replaced?"
"We only made one entire replacement: the power and drive components. But we suspect your two
engineers will readily comprehend our technology. Other partial replacements and upgrades--for
instance, those we made to your life support systems--will be less familiar to your technicians. In
particular, we use a radically different approach to recycle air and water."
Riordan's flesh cooled suddenly. "I presume you use specially 'induced' biota for that?"
"Of course." The Slaasriithi ambassador studied Caine's face for a second. "Ah. I see. I assure
you, there are no microorganisms in those biota other than the ones which will freshen your
"I see." And although I like you, Yiithrii'ah'aash, and even trust you to some degree, I'll let the
experts on Earth be the judges of your biological adjustments. "And what about the other damaged
systems? I'm guessing you had to replace our avionics and sensor suite."
"Great--but how? Our systems use different electric current, different data links and protocols.
Or are you using tailored biots to--?"
"No, Caine Riordan. We understand your reluctance to accept any biota from us without complete
screening of them. However, it was also illogical to provide you with replacement systems that
depend upon biota that you could not restore or regenerate, should they be destroyed or damaged.
Our ability to blend our technological systems with your own is a product of our opportunities to
familiarize ourselves with your devices, even before your species asked for membership in the
Further evidence that we were under observation for years before we knew there were other
intelligences; I'm not sure how that's supposed to be reassuring, but--
Riordan's team was drawing close, led by Dora, who was securing her palmcomp to a wrist-adapter commonly referred to as a bracer. "Thank you for the explanation, Ambassador," he
concluded. "We hope to have completed the mission in half a day, at most."
"That would be prudent, Caine Riordan. As you have no doubt surmised, when the stimulants in
your body have worn away, you will experience fatigue." Yiithrii'ah'aash moved to depart, then
looked back. "Profound fatigue," he emphasized.
"Thank you for the warning, Ambassador, and I--hey, Dora. On this mission, that earbud isn't
going to be anything but jewelry."
She slowed as she passed him, her hand stilled where she was affixing the device in question.
"An earbud means wireless. Wireless means signals. And our mission requires we run silent and
undetected as long as we can."
She scoffed. "Hell, the RF signature coming from our bridge controls will be putting out more EM
junk than our portable commo."
"Yes, but we can't run the ship without the controls. So regardless of how convenient wearables
are, they come with a signature--and any unnecessary signature could be the difference between us
getting spotted or not."
She started toward the airlock. "Huh. So, any idea what we're up against?"
"Not much, but I'll share it as soon as everyone is on board and squared away."
Dora left with a nod, Flight Officer Karam Tsaami right behind her. As usual.
"We'll be working in duty suits," Riordan called after his pilot. "And we'll need to fit them with
"I'm on it," Karam shouted back, detouring to the ship's locker.
"While you're there, see if we still have the pony tanks for extended ops."
Karam's reply was muffled by the dogleg in the corridor down which he had turned. "They're still
on board, Boss. Locker is fully stocked."
The ventilation system kicked on. The cold, stale air deeper inside the hull came rushing out the
passageway, pushed from behind by a blast of hot air.
"Christ, that's nasty," Miles O'Garran muttered as he hustled past.
"Won't be once you get your liner in your duty suit, Miles. Hey, on your way aft, check the
"Heading there now," replied the short, broad SEAL.
From much deeper in the ship, Dora's voice was shrill with amused amazement. "The armory?
I heard our job was to intercept something in space."
"That's correct," Riordan shouted into the ship.
Her head poked around the nearest bulkhead. "Mierda, Caine, are you planning on plinking at the
bad guys from the airlock?"
"No, but do you remember what happened on Disparity because we didn't have all the necessary
gear on all of our ships?"
For the first time in Riordan's memory of her, Dora's face blanched. "I'll go help Little Guy check
the armory," she muttered as she went aft.
"No need," O'Garran shouted. "Armory is full up. And don't call me Little Guy."
"Sure thing, Little Guy," Dora replied as Caine turned to face back down the boarding tube--
And discovered that the next person approaching was a stranger: a man in his thirties, maybe six
centimeters shorter than Caine. "I'm guessing you're the official helping hand sent along by Richard
Downing." It took more than a little effort not to sound sardonic; any person assigned by Downing
was likely to be more of a monitor and a snitch.
"Guilty as charged. Hey, I couldn't help overhearing: what did happen to you guys on Disparity?"
"We didn't have the time to sort out our gear. So some of us had to kill alien monsters and enemy
soldiers with survival rifles chambered for old-fashioned pistol rounds."
The man's eyes widened. "Well, I'm guessing that didn't work too well."
"Didn't work at all, half of the time."
The newcomer put out his hand. "Duncan Solsohn. And I know who you are."
So much for keeping a low profile. "Caine Riordan," he said anyway, offering his hand in return.
But Solsohn was already shrugging into a navy-issue duty suit, fitted with an EVA liner. "Mr.
Solsohn, exactly what do you think you're doing?"
"I'm coming with you."
"No. You are staying here."
Solsohn paused, his right arm halfway into the suit's sleeve. "Er, Mr. Downing gave me explicit
"Unfortunately, Mr. Downing relayed no such explicit instructions to me. And if they are buried
somewhere in a special orders packet, I haven't had time to catch up on my reading since I was
awakened. So you stay here."
"But, Commodore, I--"
"You just uttered the magic word, Mr. Solsohn: 'Commodore.' Which is what I am. Are you?"
"Then you follow orders and keep your head down." Caine leaned closer and lowered his voice
as tall Tygg Robin and diminutive Melissa Sleeman slipped around and past them. "Listen, Duncan.
Unlike me, you clearly know the updated operation orders for this mission, and have reviewed the
other assets Downing sent along with us. Which means, at this point, you're more essential to the
success of this operation than I am. So, for now, this is your post." Besides, I don't know you from
Adam, and if you were sent by Downing, your first loyalty is to him, not us. So until I sort you
out--"I want you to stand by on the radio, though. I need another barbarous human interpreting our
encounters and reactions for the Slaasriithi. They don't perceive confrontation the same way we do."
Duncan grinned ruefully, may have been on the verge of rolling his eyes. "Yes, I've noticed that,
sir. Anything else I can do to help?"
Riordan thought. "One thing: do you believe the Slaasriithi are overreacting, or is there a genuine
threat out there?"
Duncan's steady gaze faltered a moment. "Wish I could say they were just starting at shadows,
but no, sir, there's reason for them to be concerned. And for you to be careful."
"Thank you, Mr. Solsohn. Now, one more thing, if you please."
"What's that, sir?"
"Step back. We're casting off."