Marque of Cain – Snippet 03

Chapter Two

June, 2123

Nevis, Earth

Riordan put his hand on the dashboard to steady himself: two klicks past Amory Air Terminal, the road degenerated so rapidly that driving at the speed limit was inadvisable. Unfortunately, the car only knew what it was told by the island’s static database: Nevis had neither the budget nor the demand for a self-updating roadnet.

The car bumped and jostled through one small village after another, none more than a kilometer apart. Locals recognized the car, waved casually. Caine returned the greeting.

Upon entering a cluster of slightly more modern buildings–Brick Kiln–the car swerved to the right, exiting the main road just reaching the “Old Town”: dusty, cramped streets hemmed in by stone buildings. The car climbed up the narrow lane rapidly. Riordan overrode the automatic controls, took the wheel: the road surface here was not just annoying, it was dangerous.

Slaloming around the worst of the holes, Riordan was glad for the distraction: easier not to think about what Connor might be doing. But at least the sloop, if no more modern than Nevis’ electric and ethanol-powered cars, was an excellent ship. The well-maintained unipiece hull was almost forty years old, the alloy masts about half that. The radar and radio were sturdy, if basic, as were the sails. The only truly modern feature was the “ray-grabber” cabin roof that was, despite appearances, one big, high-efficiency solar panel. On days like today, it kept a steady current flowing into the flat-form battery that resembled a drop-ceiling affixed to the small cabin’s overhead.

The Slimline Janus outboard was not quite as modern, but that, too, was preferable so as not to attract undue attention. Massing only 30 kilos, it was a dual-operation motor, able to switch between the high performance of gasoline and the endurance of electricity at a moment’s notice. That had proven extremely handy when the weather turned unexpectedly as it had on one of their earliest trips to the barren island-butte known as Redonda. They’d had no choice but to try to beat the storm back to Nevis: there was no bay or mooring on the uninhabited rock spur. By saving the gasoline to fight the tougher currents and pre-storm swells on the forty kilometer return trip, they got the sloop to safety before the rain and wind arrived to knock down trees and take the odd roof or two.

The narrow road straightened, the gradient easing. Up ahead, Caine glimpsed the muted sheen of their house’s solar shingles, checked his wristlink. Not quite 10 AM. Enough time for a quick hike to the small rise known as Mount Butler, a fast descent into the rain forest behind it, and then a leisurely northward return through the ravine that separated the knobby hill from the skirts of Mount Nevis.

*     *     *

Beyond The Narrows, Connor tacked away from Nevis toward St. Kitts, but more specifically, toward Booby Island. A one-hundred meter hump of stone and tenacious bushes, even a shallow draft sloop had to take care while slipping between the hull-gutting rocks which surrounded it. Once ashore, Connor would eat his lunch and take advantage of the island’s isolation as he and his father habitually did: to get in some quick target practice.

It was perfect for handguns. A short scramble up into the rocks and you were invisible among the gnarled branches. The reports were swallowed by the swift current’s constant susurration and the bash and spray of unruly swells.

Connor scanned the horizon: a few fishing boats, back beyond the leeward mouth of the channel and heading in the opposite direction. As usual, Booby Island meant privacy. Which, for Connor and his father, also meant safety.

Connor, like many of his generation, did not take safety for granted. Not anymore. But unlike the generations that would follow, he remembered a time when you never gave a thought to the basic security of your existence. You just got up and started your day.

Then the aliens invaded. Even after they were kicked off Earth, Connor struggled against the fear that his family would never really be safe again. His Mom had been badly wounded during the Battle of Jakarta–so badly that other, friendly aliens had to take her away for advanced care. Trevor and Nuncle Richard left Indonesia to chase the invaders back to their own worlds. News tended to be sparse, vague, and even contradictory. What was manifestly obvious, however, was that, except for his grandma, his whole family had been swallowed up by the war. Hell, even Caine Riordan, his ostensible father, was gone.

Uncle Trevor didn’t come back for almost eight months. Nuncle Richard didn’t come back for almost a year and was gone again after a few weeks. And Mom never came back at all. But, a year and a half later, Uncle Trevor showed up on Grandma’s doorstep with confidential news: Caine Riordan had finally returned. When asked if he wanted to meet his father, glib, voluble fifteen-year-old Connor discovered that, for the first few minutes, the only reply he could muster was a series of emphatic nods.

However, that meeting didn’t take place right away. Certain of Earth’s governments, particularly those of the Developing World Coalition bloc, wanted to bring Riordan to trial. For what reason, and on what charges, was never particularly clear. Politicians and reporters flung around various terms: dereliction of duty, disobeying orders, mutiny, even treason on one or two occasions. But in the end, Caine was either exonerated or white-washed, because they were willing to let him go. And so Connor finally met his father.

As Connor approached Booby Island he turned increasingly into the breeze, slowing the sloop by instinct. Which was fortunate, because only half of his mind was on the boat; the other was on all the changes that had occurred since that first meeting.

He smiled, looked around: bright sun, blue water, and the calming sounds of the sea. A father who did not push, but led by example. Who had effectively home-schooled him for the past two years. Not by lecturing, but by enticing him from question to question, by finding what Connor loved most and creating projects which integrated and engaged those passions. And who was always ready to listen, always ready with a smile, or, eventually, a hug.

Connor tossed the small anchor over the side. For fifteen years, he hadn’t known his father at all. For the last two, he’d spent almost every waking and sleeping hour near him.

All things being equal, it had been worth the wait.

*     *     *

Five seconds after the crewman left the crate on the afterdeck of the Golden Hold, a discus-sized quadrotor drone emerged from its square, dark mouth. Sensors spun, examined. It moved to the taffrail, scouting the parts of the ship that were in its line of sight, and then the watery reaches astern. It rose slightly and sent a millisecond tight-beam signal back along the path it had flown.

A larger drone, more than half a meter across, rose out of the crate, propellers buzzing far more audibly than its partner’s. It made for the taffrail, passed the smaller drone and, once over open water, dropped sharply. It leveled off only two meters above the low swells, is chromaflage skin shading toward a dark grey-blue. An unaided human eye would have been at pains to pick it out.