Marque of Caine – Snippet 10

Chapter Six

July, 2123

Nevis, Earth

Connor checked his wristlink, then surveyed the private dining room overlooking the Chesapeake. He had been in this restaurant, The Bos’uns Chair, at least fifty times and it never changed. But somehow, it felt different. After almost two years on Nevis, everything on the mainland seemed impossibly loud, impossibly hasty, and now, impossibly far removed from the dangers at large in the world.

Less than a week ago, he had awakened early, excited to sail through The Narrows on his own, a rite of passage for a kid who had grown up safe and sound–and was eager not to be. What he got instead was a glimpse into the darker world beneath that safe and sound one, a world from which one never really returns.

Connor’s turning gaze wound up on his dad, who was watching him from three seats away. They shared a smile, one that Connor had to work at keeping happy. Attending the Academy was all he had wanted for three years, but being separated from his dad–that was hard to imagine, now. Just as it was hard to imagine that he had ever felt differently, sitting in this very room, waiting to meet his father for the very first time, and certain–certain–that this late-come parent would never be more to him than an amiable interloper in his real family. And yet, a few months later, Connor decided to accompany this apparently friendly and forthright man into incognito exile. Because it was either that or never get to really know his father.

Who proved to be patient, persistent, good-natured, deeply interested in Connor’s dreams, and who, above all, radiated parental love like a wood-stove: steady, warm, utterly reliable. But now dad was being whisked away, just like his mother and grandfather had been.

Connor sighed and rose. His father did the same. Time to go.

He started toward Caine wishing there was some way to both spend another year with his father and still move forward into adulthood.

But that was not the way of things.

*     *     *

As Riordan stood, Trevor caught his eye, made exaggerated pointing motions toward the door and then his wristlink. Riordan nodded, turned back toward Connor with as bright a smile as he could muster. “Your Uncle Trevor is eager to get you to your induction party.”

Connor’s lips crinkled upward. “Well, he ranks me, so I guess I’d better step lively.”

Riordan gathered his son into a wide-armed hug. “I’m going to miss you, Connor. Very much.”

Connor’s voice was muffled in his shoulder. “I’m going to miss you too, Dad.”

Riordan nodded. “I’d ask you to call every week and promise I’d do the same, but I don’t think they have comm service where I’m going.” Riordan managed to keep his smile from crumbling.

Connor’s dimmed. “It’s okay, Dad. Just find Mom and bring her home. Nothing else matters. Except that you stay safe.”

 “I will. I love you, son.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

Riordan watched Connor walk out the wharfside door, his Uncle Trevor on one side, his grandmother Patrice Corcoran on the other.

From the tap-room behind him, feet shuffled closer. Caine didn’t have to look to know who it was: the two security operatives who’d been sent by IRIS.

“Yes,” Riordan said, “I’m ready to leave.”

“Actually, Mr. Riordan, we’re here to tell you that Mr. Downing has been waiting to speak with you.”

Riordan turned, looked at the guards: the woman reminded him of a panther; the man, a Kodiak bear. “I thought I was traveling with Mr. Downing.”

“Change of plans, sir. You’re being sequestered in different locations.”

Riordan nodded, wondered at the significance of the change, entered the tap-room.

Richard Downing was sitting in one of the dark wood booths, his eyes fixed on a tall glass of seltzer in front of him. His own two minders were waiting at the far end of the bar, close to the door. Caine’s took stools at the other end. They may have exchanged faint nods.

Riordan slid into facing booth. “Hello, Richard.”

Downing looked up, startled. Three years ago, he had been impossible to surprise. “Caine. Good to see you.”

“And it’s good to see you, too.” Except it wasn’t good to see Richard, not looking like this: bags under his eyes, his face grey, his slender six-foot two-inch frame almost gaunt.

Downing smiled sadly. “You have always been a poor liar, Caine.” He sipped his seltzer. “I just wanted to say good luck in the days to come.”

“And you as well. I’ve heard they’re dragging you into sequestration again, too. Why?”

Downing shrugged. “Not really sure. Wouldn’t be surprised if they want to use me as a watchdog, to alert them when you fail to tell them the truth.” He laughed. “If so, they certainly do not understand our prior arm’s-length working relationship. Particularly when it comes to whatever contact arrangements you made with your old crew.”

Riordan shrugged. “I have nothing to tell them now that I didn’t two years ago.”

Downing raised an uncertain palm. “Or it might simply be another opportunity for the new Procedural Compliance Directorate to demonstrate their power in IRIS, to spank the Old Guard all over again. Don’t make that face, Caine. They’re all from the Developing World Coalition, so they will take every opportunity to exert, and thereby reinforce, their authority.”

Riordan leaned back, discovered he needed to change the subject. “So, what about you? What comes next?”

 “I suspect they’re going to take another run at putting my head on a pike, too.”

“How? By trotting out the same unsupported accusations and fabricated evidence?”

Downing’s smile was rueful. “Oh, I’m sure they can dress up the leftovers well enough to claim it’s a new dish. They just need to create a strong enough whiff of impropriety and insubordination to ensure that I become a political liability to the powers-that-be. A month after they’re done having at me, I’ll be sent packing. Quietly. With apologies and a poorly attended retirement party.”

Riordan frowned. Downing was no choir-boy. But to watch him get cashiered for finally–finally–putting people before pragmatism? For ensuring the safety of Caine’s crew and the “Lost Soldiers” they’d rescued from Turkh’saar? No: not acceptable.

Caine made sure his voice was casual. “So what if we could trick the DWC flacks into thinking that you were on their side? Or, at least, that you were willing to throw me under the bus to appease them?” As he spoke, Riordan shifted in his seat until the guards fell within his peripheral vision: neither pair were properly positioned to use directional eavesdropping devices.

Downing had looked up sharply. “‘Throw you under the bus?’ What on earth are you talking about, Riordan?”

“What if, after they’re done grilling me to no avail, you were able to tell them how Bannor informed me that their agents were closing in on my old crew and the Lost Soldiers?”

Richard became very still. Then: “Caine, I appreciate the offer, but I doubt it would help me. More importantly, once they know how Bannor is communicating to you, they’d be able to backtrack along those data streams to find him and probably the Lost Soldiers.”

“No, they won’t, because there are no data streams left to backtrack.”

Downing’s eyes widened. “Of course. When Bannor used the channel to send a message to your attention, it also meant he was shutting it down.”

Riordan nodded. “And Bannor immediately began relocating everyone.”

Richard smiled. “So there’s no way to reestablish contact.”

“Precisely. But the inquisitors won’t know that. They’ll think you’re giving them viable intelligence, a channel they can monitor.” Riordan leaned back. “Now: are you interested?”

“To coin a phrase, I’m all ears.” Downing had pretty big ears.

Riordan smiled. “So here’s how we managed it. Bannor posted anonymous content on various sites and blogs every month. None of it had anything to do with us. They were weather reports, travel logs, hotel and travel reviews. The only meaningful parts were descriptions of the weather or night skies, all of which directly or indirectly indicated positions of moons or planets.

“If every one of those astronomical details were correct for that location and that date, it meant no one was closing in on the hiding place of the Lost Soldiers and the others.”

Downing nodded, smiling. “But an error meant that he and the Lost Soldiers were in imminent danger of discovery. And that you, personally, were to be alerted. Well done, Commodore. And,”–his voice dropped–“thank you, Caine. It’s always good to have a trump card.”

Downing’s minders glanced at their wristlinks, then out at the street, then started toward the booth.

Richard stood. “I suppose this is goodbye. I hope we’ll see each other again. And if you have to start a war to bring Elena back, I shall gladly serve in that army. Here’s my hand on it.”

Caine shook Downing’s hand, nodded at the fierce, almost agonized resolve in the other’s worn face, and watched as he made for the exit, a stick-figure framed by dusk-dimmed windows.