Marque of Cain – Snippet 01

Marque of Caine

The Fifth Caine Riordan novel

Charles E. Gannon

Part One

In Sua Patria

Propheta in sua patria honorem non habet

(The prophet hath no honor in his own country)

Earth and Environs

June-July, 2123

Chapter One

June, 2123

Nevis, Earth

Caine Riordan watched the hull of the eighteen-foot sloop recede. “Pretty strong headwind in The Narrows today, son.”

Seventeen-year-old Connor Corcoran looked over his shoulder as he stowed the pole he’d used to push off from Oualie New Dock. He smiled, a hint of indulgence in the expression. “There’s a pretty strong headwind in The Narrows every day, Dad.”

“Dad”: hearing that never gets old. Caine smiled back. “Fair enough. But it’s a lot trickier tackling it solo.”

Connor stood to the tiller, his smile widening as the boat drifted back and the breeze started toying with the telltales. “As you’ve told me. Every time I’ve tackled it on my own. With you in the boat.”

Yes, with me in the boat. Where I can intervene. Help you. Save you, if it comes to that. But Caine forced himself to simply raise his hand and wave. “Have fun, Connor.”

“I will. And Dad?” Connor had to raise his voice a little to be heard across the widening gap. He was making ready to swing away from the dock.

“What is it?”

“You’re going to keep your promise, right?”

Caine sighed. “I gave you my word. I will not watch. You are on your own.” Riordan checked his wristlink, which was offline. As it had been since the day they had arrived on the island of Nevis almost two years ago. “I’ll meet you back here at 3 PM.”

Connor cupped a theatrical hand to his ear. “What’s that you said? Four o’clock?”

Riordan replied in a loud, flat tone. “Three PM. As agreed.”

“You are a killjoy, Dad.”

“I love you too, Connor.”

Who waved, and–with the eager agility of seventeen-year-olds everywhere–leaped to the tasks that would aim the sloop’s prow out toward the cerulean waters of the leeward Caribbean.

Riordan decided that seeing the boat out of Oualie Bay wasn’t “watching.” It was just part of saying farewell. Okay, a very long farewell. Caine squinted against the mid-morning sunlight bouncing up from the bleached dock planks, eyes tracking the sloop’s filling, dwindling sails. Finally, its red-tipped masthead disappeared behind the northern headland. He turned and walked slowly back to his car.

“Car” was a pretty grand term for the cramped, motorized box. It was adequate for Nevis, though: the rounded island’s only major artery for vehicles was a thirty-three kilometer coastal ring-road. Riordan slipped into the driver’s seat, activated the electric motor, and tapped the “reverse trip” tab on the dashboard’s faded screen. The weathered vehicle began rolling forward, angling toward the low eastern hills that mounted toward Nevis’ central volcanic peak.

As it reached the coast road, the electric motor was still an atonal whine: just one of the many ways the car was showing its age. Which was probably greater than Riordan’s forty years. But the car had two decisively redeeming features: it was reliable and it was nondescript. And of the two features, its unremarkable appearance among the island’s other worn vehicles was the most important.

In order to remain unfound, Riordan had made every aspect of their existence on Nevis as commonplace as possible. Their house was modest and not in a particularly desirable part of the island, yet not so remote that it spawned the speculations and aura of mystery associated with truly secluded homes. They used local currency, forwarded by off-shore agents who sent any extraordinary requirements in an unnumbered crate. Both father and son shopped in the local market at Brick Kiln, visited the larger stores in Charlestown once or twice a month.

As the car swung onto the long, scrub-bracketed stretch of road that paralleled The Narrows and ran past Amory Air Terminal, its engine’s two-toned whine finally settled into a normal monotone hum. Riordan glanced to his left–surely a mere glance did not constitute “watching” Connor–to see if the sloop’s sail had appeared yet.

Nothing. Not too surprising, given that the headwinds were brisk in the small channel between Nevis and the larger island of St. Kitts to the north. Connor would spend a lot of time tacking back and forth across that breeze before getting through the windward mouth and into the open ocean.

Caine sighed, sat back. The roadside scrub was now interspersed with elephant grass and sandy flats. The towering cone of Mt. Nevis started brightening, murky grey transforming to rich green as the sun bathed it more fully. A kilometer marker flashed by, then another.

Riordan resisted the temptation to look in the rearview mirror or instruct the car to slow down. There’s nothing to worry about. He’s piloted through The Narrows at least twenty times. Hell, he’s a better sailor than I am. Ought to be; he came to it earlier.

A moment later, his resolve forgotten, Caine glanced in the rearview mirror. Back where the leeward mouth of the strait spilled the waters of the Atlantic into the Caribbean, he glimpsed a flash of white over the cars parked at the air terminal: the upper corner of the sloop’s mainsail.

Riordan breathed out slowly. And along with the air in his lungs, he expelled the high, hard knot of worry that had been lodged in his chest ever since leaving dock. Not because he had any misgivings about Connor’s skills or calm in a crisis. Nothing as defined or finite as that. No, this was the same fear that awakened Caine in the quiet, solid darkness of the tropical nights, body covered in sweat. No matter which images of battle and carnage came to haunt him, no matter which specific terror rose up through them, the lessons they rehearsed were always the same:

There’s no such thing as certainty.

Control is an illusion.

Death and destruction descend the moment you forget to watch for them.

That was what two years of intermittent war had taught him. And once you learned those lessons, you didn’t just remember them: you lived them, moment to moment.

He didn’t have anything as severe as full-blown PTSD. The interludes of combat had been sharp but short-lived, with long reprieves in between: not the constant repetition that shapes new reflexes, molds new behaviors. But its impact upon him was no less real. Dawn no longer brought easy presumptions of personal safety, or even human dominance. Now, he and the rest of humanity saw each dawn as being the potential harbinger of a disorienting new reality–just the way it had been four years ago.

On that fateful morning early in April 2119, humanity had awakened into a universe in which it was comfortingly, and safely, alone. By nightfall, news of ancient ruins on Delta Pavonis Three had been leaked to a global audience, and the universe’s vast emptiness had been replaced by expectations of a cosmos teeming with past or present exosapients.

Just six months later, the grim sequelae of that revelation shook Earth out of its last semi-complacent slumber. Alien invaders fell from the sky, seized Indonesia as both leverage and as a beachhead, and crippled the globe’s power grid to ensure their mastery. And over the many months that followed, as Caine crept through both terrestrial and alien undergrowth on missions to reclaim some of the autonomy humanity had lost, he learned and relearned the prime lesson common to all these shocks:

That all assumptions, like all plans, are never more than a second away from a catastrophic collision with contradictory reality.

Riordan snapped his eyes away from the rearview mirror that he had stopped seeing, focused on the road that he knew better than his own face, by now. After the fighting was over, Caine believed he had made his peace with the unpredictable imminence of death and disaster, a specter that could not be dismissed, only managed. During long months between the stars, there had been ample opportunity to confront it, to work through it, however unevenly and imperfectly.