Marque of Caine – Snippet 09

Chapter Five

June, 2123

Nevis, Earth

Connor saw it the same moment the others in the aircar did: twinned plumes of grey smoke rising up from the northeastern skirts of Mt. Nevis. One was much heavier and thicker.

Rinehart cleared his throat. “Those are right on top of the transponder signal.”

Trevor glanced at him. “Bio register?”

Rinehart frowned. “No data. Either the connection has been disrupted or that part of the transponder is malfunctioning.”

Connor felt his stomach harden and sink. “Or Dad could be–“

Trevor did not let him finish. “No. That’s not what the null signal means. It means that the transponder is either out of contact with your Dad, or its ability to detect ongoing life signs has been ruined.”

“You mean, like what would happen if his arm was blown off?”

Gray Rinehart looked away as Trevor shook his head. “There’s no reason to think that.”

Connor’s weight was suddenly against the straps on his chest: Cruz was slowing, lest he overshoot the twin columns of smoke.

Rinehart adjusted the settings on his palmtop’s tracking program, frowned. “The transponder signal should be stronger by now.”

Trevor looked over his shoulder. “Unless he’s still in a cave.”

Rinehart nodded. “In which case, it’s time to go spelunking.”

They were dropping down toward the source of the smoke. Connor saw that the larger plume was curling up out of the cave he and Dad had nicknamed The Mud Hole. The smaller plume was emerging from the tangle of bushes and vines that capped it like a thatch of wild hair.

Cruz glanced back as they pulled close enough to touch the immense volcanic slab that housed the cave. “If you want to go spelunking, sirs,” he yelled over the thrusters, “you may have to rappel down. There’s no place large enough for me to land.”

 “That won’t be necessary, Chief,” a more distant voice shouted.

Dad’s voice!

A mud-coated figure stood up from the tangled growth atop the spur as the aircar’s engines settled into the hoarse rush of low-power hover.

Gun at the ready, Trevor leaped from the aircar to where Caine stood. Connor made to follow, but Riordan held up a hand. “Better that I come on board.” Dad had spoken slowly, evenly: the way he did when counseling caution. Connor looked over the side of the car: a missed jump here could easily result in broken bones. A lot of them. Still . . .

His father must have seen the look on his face. “C’mon, son, be sensible: reporting for Plebe Summer with your leg in a cast is no way to start at the Academy, is it?”

Connor took a deep breath. He hated it when his Dad got over-protective. He hated it even more when he was right. But by the time Cruz had snugged the aircar a little closer and everyone was on board, all he really cared about was that his dad was alive.

*     *     *

As Caine buckled in, Trevor stared hard at his left arm, started reaching under his seat for a medkit. Riordan shook his head. “It’ll wait.” He smiled. “It’s self-inflicted.”

Trevor raised an eyebrow. “The transponder?”

Caine shrugged. “As long as it was in me, I was in their cross-hairs.”

Connor goggled. “So you just cut it out?”

Caine smiled. “Sorry to lessen your opinion of me, son, but there was no ‘just’ about it. It hurt like hell.”

“But you did it.”

“You would, too.” I just hope you never have to do anything like it. He turned to Trevor. “That block of C-8 and bag of decommissioned equipment you left at the safe-house saved my life. The remote controllers and actuators got their killer drone looking the wrong way at the right moment.”

Cruz whistled. “Sir, you are one ballsy–uh, nervy gambling man.”

“What do you mean, Carlos?”

“Well, in order to come after you, they had to know where you were, right, sir? So how could you be sure they didn’t know about the equipment cache?”

Trevor smiled. “Because it was totally off the books, Cruz. Only Richard Downing and I knew it was there. I told Caine about it just before he came down.”

Connor turned to look at his father, eyes wide. “And you never told me about it?”

Caine shrugged. “You were never going to be at The Mud Hole when it mattered.”

“What do you mean?”

Trevor nodded approvingly. “Your dad means that if he had time enough to get to the cave, then he had time enough to make sure you were safe before going there. No matter who or what might come after him.”

“What you’re really saying is that you wanted to stash me away somewhere while they swooped in and killed you.”

Caine reached across the aircar, put both hands on his son’s shoulders. He did not speak immediately. Then: “What I wanted was for you to be out of harm’s way. I’ve had too many people become ‘collateral damage’ because they were near me when the hammer came down.” He pushed aside the nightmares in which he not only lost his son, but was the cause of it. “Not you, too, Connor.” Not like your mother. “Not you.”

Connor’s eyes told Riordan that his son had read his thoughts–right before the young, tanned arms reached out to rest on Caine’s shoulders. Connor squeezed them tightly for a long moment, then shook them. “Damn it, Dad. You make me crazy.”

“That’s part of my job as a parent. If I read the manual correctly.”

Trevor was staring back at the receding plumes. “That’s a lot of smoke, even for a C-8 charge.”

Riordan nodded. “The drone must have triggered its self-destruct device. Almost got me, too.” He ran his hand along several gashes on his left calf and ankle.

Gray Rinehart studied them sagely. “From spalled rock?”

“Yep. Chips came flying up that old fumarole pretty hard.”

Rinehart shrugged, unconcerned. “If there’s anything that needs to be removed, it shouldn’t be too deep. But we’ll need to clean you up, first.”

Connor smiled. “Yeah, Dad, you look like you were rolling in the mud.”

Riordan smiled back. “That’s because I was.”

Trevor scanned Caine from head to toe. “Old expedient against IR and thermal imaging.” He nodded approvingly. “Limited effectiveness, but better than nothing.”

Caine returned the nod absently, leaned back into the seat, finally felt his body begin to relax, worried it might start shaking, instead. He concentrated on external sensations: the sun, the sky, the breeze. “I just wish I had some ideas about who’s behind this attack and why.”

Rinehart looked at Trevor. “We might be able to shed some light on that.”

Trevor nodded. “There are two possible reasons, and they might be linked. First, this month’s message from Bannor raised a flag.”

Connor was looking from face to face. “Bannor? The Green Beret who worked for Dad?”

Caine smiled softly. “I wouldn’t put it quite that way, son. Let’s say I had the benefit of his advice because I had the dubious benefit of rank.”

Trevor let out a long-suffering sigh. “Okay, okay: even I won’t give you grief about your rank anymore. It may have been a political assignment, but in the end, you earned it. And then some. And yes, Connor, Bannor Rulaine was your Dad’s XO on several operations.”

“So now Bannor’s in trouble?”

Trevor seemed uncertain how to respond. Caine stepped in. “He and the rest of my team couldn’t risk returning after our last mission. They, and the humans we found stranded on Turkh’saar, were both politically hot.”

Connor frowned. “How hot?”

“Nuclear. The odds were good that the people we rescued would ‘disappear’, and that my team would wind up in secure facilities for years. Or longer. So they all went into hiding.”

“While you risked a firing squad by coming back?”

“Connor, things were never going to come to that.”

Trevor looked away. Gray Rinehart stared at Caine from under silvery brows.

Riordan ignored their dubiety. “Anyhow, it seems that Bannor’s most recent status report indicates–only to Trevor and me–that they are all in imminent danger of being discovered.”

Connor shook his head. “Wait a minute. You told me that Bannor and all those other people made a deal with Nuncle Richard and the government. Well, a bunch of governments. And now one of those governments is breaking that deal?”

“Looks like it.” Riordan turned toward Trevor. “Is that why I got the Ultimate Experience signal?”

Connor blinked. “The what?”

Rinehart leaned back, blew out his cheeks. “A few of us in IRIS–the Institute for Reconnaissance, Intelligence, and Security–set up a back channel to keep your father apprised of any changes in his security status.”

“You mean, if someone was coming to kill him?”

Rinehart had the good grace to look sheepish. “Pretty much. At any rate, the group which oversees this back channel reports only to Director Sukhinin and to me. No one else knows it exists.”

“Which, theoretically, keeps it sealed against infiltration,” Trevor expanded, nodding.

Connor frowned. “So, because Bannor sent a message that someone was breaking the deal they made two years ago, the deal-breakers sent someone to kill Dad?”

Caine shook his head. “There’s got to be more to it than that. Firstly, good luck to anyone trying to monitor the updates we get from Bannor. If you don’t know what to look for, or where, you’d have no idea that there’s any communication coming from him at all.

“Secondly, even if they knew your Uncle Trevor was the one compiling his updates, that still wouldn’t tell them where I am.” He studied Trevor’s face, then Rinehart’s. “So the other, linked reason for today’s excitement is something that not only revealed where I am, but caused someone with that information to decide I had to be taken off the game board.”

Trevor looked down, then nodded. When he looked back up, his face had become unreadable. “The Dornaani have sent a message. About Elena.” He looked at Connor. “They’re the ones who have your Mom in surgical cryostasis. And now they want to talk to your Dad.”

Caine forgot his resolve to remain relaxed. “When? Where?”

Before Trevor could answer, Connor angrily spat out a question of his own. “Wait: you mean someone here on Earth wants to keep us from getting Mom back? Who the hell would–?”

“Calm, now.” Rinehart’s voice was avuncular yet firm. “We won’t find out by shouting about it.”

“Okay, so how are we going to find out?”

Caine looked up, realizing what Rinehart had already deduced. “By determining who knew that I would be notified about the message from the Dornaani.”

Rinehart nodded. “So you understand.”

Caine nodded back. “I think so. Word of the Dornaani contact reached you through official channels. Which means it was seen by lots of other people, many of whom knew it would be relayed to me. And one of them learned that the final destination of the message was here on Nevis. So although killing me could be an attempt to preempt my meeting the Dornaani, it’s just as likely that whoever attacked me today already wanted me dead. This was just the first time they had actionable intelligence.”

Rinehart nodded. “Whether you’ve been on their hit-list for years or just a few days, we can’t say. But we do know this: the Dornaani message was addressed to the Proconsul of the Consolidated Terran Republic. It was coded top secret ultra and bounced down to the Commonwealth bloc’s foreign office, to the U.S. State Department, and then finally to us in IRIS.”

“Since you are nominatively my warders.”

Rinehart nodded. “Which means the leak is almost certainly in IRIS. None of the upstream organizations have any information about your whereabouts.”

Trevor’s face had become expressive again. “For an intel organization, IRIS seems to have a lot of leaks.”

Riordan leaned forward. “When do I meet the Dornaani, and where?”

If you go to meet them, you’ll be rendezvousing with a ship they’ll send to a border system in a few months.”

If?” shouted Connor. “If he’s goes? And what about me? I should be goi–!”

“Connor.” Riordan waited until the only sounds in the aircar were the hoarse rush of the thrusters and the flapping of wind-slapped collars and sleeves. “Connor,” he repeated, “even if I was willing to let you miss early admission to the Naval Academy, I doubt the Dornaani would allow this to be a family outing. And as far my going is concerned,”–Riordan turned back to Rinehart–“I suspect my next real stop is D.C. and another set of hearings. Isn’t it?”

Rinehart’s smile was very faint and very rueful. “There’s a rhetorical question if I ever heard one.”

“Look,” said Trevor, leaning toward Caine, “there’s going to be a lot of sympathy for you. For Elena. And this is the first contact we’ve had about her in over three years. This is what we’ve all been waiting for.”

As Riordan heard those words, he lost the ability to control his thoughts. Elena. I might be able to get closer to you. Elena.

Rinehart looked over at him. “And you’ll be the first human to visit the Dornaani Collective, to see how they live.”

Riordan knew his answering grin was, at best, crooked. “Somehow, Gray, first contact has lost whatever appeal it held for me.” Riordan had never wanted the job. He had fallen into it. And just like quicksand, it had proven almost impossible to get out of.

Gray Rinehart nodded. “Still, the stakes don’t get much higher than this.”

Caine saw Elena’s face. “No, they truly don’t.” He took a moment to watch the leeward coast of St. Kitts flash past, the gulls wheeling, the waves obliterating themselves in white explosions against the rocks. “The Dornaani message: did it come from Alnduul?”

“It did.”

Riordan smiled: well, that was another reason for hope. “What else did he say?”

“That he has answers to all your questions.”

Caine smiled. “Alnduul underestimates the magnitude of my curiosity.”

Cruz banked gently to the right and began down toward St. Kitts’ air terminal, putting the wind fully in their faces.