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?"