Marque of Caine – Snippet 12

Caine leaned back. “I’m surprised IRIS released you from ‘administrative custody’ at all.”

“I gave my word to Director Sukhinin that I would remain silent. He understood that by doing so, I put the honor of my family at stake, as well.” She looked down slightly. “However, the recent attack upon you proves that some powers do not trust individual oaths of silence. And perhaps mine will be the next one they feel must be . . . revisited.”

Riordan considered the bright rim of his water glass. Ayana Tagawa knew more about the Ktor than anyone else who was willing to admit to such familiarity with them. But she had no knowledge of the state-to-state exchanges with their highest leadership, and so, was completely unaware that the Ktor had promised all-out war if their identity was revealed. Meaning that she was the political equivalent of a thermonuclear device without even knowing it.

Riordan folded his hands. “Tell me how I can help.”

“I walk in darkness, Commodore. We know the Ktor are human, yet the information is suppressed. Those of us who have seen the truth are sworn to secrecy, and some, like you, are removed from the public eye. But when you emerged, you became the target of assassins. So I must wonder: might I be next? And if I am, how can I hope to survive? I have no powerful friends watching over me. Worse still, I do not understand why knowing this secret has become a death sentence.”

So that’s why Lorraine had aimed Tagawa at him: for the knowledge Riordan could impart obliquely, just by sharing a few of the low-clearance details of the witch hunt he’d endured two years ago. Ayana would then have a chance to read between the lines and deduce why such a highly classified campaign of information suppression was still in force, and consequently, why her life was in such grave danger. Riordan wasn’t sure Phalon’s plan would work, but he was willing to follow the commander’s implicit lead. “Where would you like me to begin, Ms. Tagawa?”

“You are very kind, Commodore.” She straightened. “Firstly, why is there no mention of the specific charges brought against you during the hearings?”

Riordan shook his head, still smiling. “There’s no mention of the charges brought against me because none ever were. Despite the accusers’ attempts to compel my bloc and national government to do so.”

“For what charges were they pressing?”

“They started with treason.”

Ayana’s eyes widened. “On what grounds?”

Riordan took a sip of water. Keep the details vague, for her sake. “After returning from Turkh’saar, I refused to relinquish control over certain individuals until I received official guarantees for their safety.”

 She nodded. “I heard many Ktor conversations about the Lost Soldiers while we were in the Turkh’saar system.”

Okay, so she did know about the Lost Soldiers. That allowed Riordan to be a bit less oblique. “After it was determined that there weren’t any grounds for treason, my accusers wanted me charged with mutiny.”

“I presume you disobeyed a direct order to turn over the Lost Soldiers?”

“Correct. And since I never did comply with that order unconditionally, the chair of the board allowed the opposition–in the interests of interbloc amity–to lay out its argument and supporting evidence. Which took almost three weeks.”

“And how long did it take for your side to present its case?”

Caine felt his smile become wolfish. “Five hours and thirty-six minutes. Including the recess for lunch. After which the accusations were dismissed as groundless.”

“So your accusers spent all that time and achieved nothing?”

Riordan held up a finger. “Not quite. During their three weeks in the spotlight, the opposition sensationalized IRIS’ procedural and jurisdictional ‘inadequacies.’ As a result, they gathered enough support to compel the Institute to establish an in-house watchdog division: the Procedural Compliance Directorate. Which then launched an ‘objective assessment’ of the conformity between IRIS’ mandate and its war-time operating procedures.”

Ayana nodded, understanding. “And is that how Director Downing was demoted to IRIS’s ‘Advisory’ Director?”

Riordan sighed. “For the most part, he was just a scapegoat.”

“So who was actually responsible? His former superior, Nolan Corcoran?”

Carefully, now. “Let me put it this way, Ms. Tagawa. The truly culpable parties, those who created IRIS and approved everything that Nolan Corcoran ever did, cannot answer questions on these matters.”

Ayana’s eyes opened slightly wider. “Why? To protect them politically?”

“No. Because they cannot be put in a position where their oaths of office would necessitate that they perjure themselves.” Because, even if asked directly, they cannot reveal what the Ktor have done and who the Ktor really are. Not without violating their own secrecy orders. C’mon, Ayana: connect the dots . . .

Ayana’s eyes opened even wider. Then she nodded slowly. “I thank you, Commodore Riordan. Very much.”

Riordan swallowed the last of the water in his glass. Ayana Tagawa had proven to be a fast study, and as her eyes faded off into a hundred meter stare, he could imagine them looking inward, seeing how the dominoes he’d just unveiled could fall. And crush her. The parties responsible for withholding and twisting information had put their careers on the line to avert a war that humanity could not survive, let alone win. And the assassination attempt against Riordan signified that some of them were willing to kill to protect those secrets.

Caine suppressed a shiver. What Ayana still didn’t know was that, from the start, the DWC had militated for a “total” solution: the outright elimination of the Lost Soldiers and any other potential intelligence leaks. They had never relented on that point and so, as their presence in IRIS grew, so too did their ability to identify and preemptively eliminate such threats: threats such as Ayana Tagawa.

As Ayana’s gaze faded back into the here and now, Caine saw the weight of realization settle in her eyes. But she still didn’t–couldn’t–realize that in actuality, she was as good as dead. But Caine wouldn’t allow that outcome: something else that Phalon had probably anticipated.

“Go to my people,” Riordan said, surprised as the unplanned words came out of his mouth.

She blinked. “Your…people?”

“Not the ones here.” After a pause, he glanced at the ceiling. “The ones out there.”

“But how will they know that I–?”

“They no longer have the ability to reach me, but I can tell you how to reach them. No promises, though: it was arranged as a dead-drop. They may have abandoned it.”

Ayana’s attention was absolute, tense. “I saw reports that Colonel Bannor Rulaine, your former executive officer, was working as a military contractor on Epsilon Indi. I presume I must go–”

Riordan shook his head. “The only way he’d still be in that system is if someone there put him in a cell. Or a coffin. You go to Zeta Tucanae.”

“But how–?”

“Zeta Tucanae, Ms. Tagawa. And you can’t share that destination with anyone. That secret is also on both your own and your family’s honor.”

She nodded sharply, breathed out a hoarse, “Hai.”

Riordan nodded back. “Zeta Tucanae used to be a year and a half by shift carrier. It’s a lot less now if you get a ride on one of the upgraded ones.”

“That–that would require all my funds,” she stammered.

Riordan stared at her. “Ms. Tagawa, you’re the intelligence professional, not me. But if you’re not sure what’s at stake, let me make it clearer: if you stay here, whatever money you’ve saved is going to be your burial fund. If you don’t have enough money, then take out a loan and run. Default.”

She stiffened at that suggestion. Two resolves–honor and survival–vied in her eyes.

“Look,” Caine added, “you don’t have a lot of time. Now that these assassins are acting openly, their operational timeline has to be accelerated. So whatever time bomb you are already sitting on has just had its fuse shortened. Drastically.”

She nodded, her lips an unflinching line. “So,” she almost whispered, “Zeta Tucanae.”

He nodded back. “Once there, go to a place called Theresa King’s Outfitting and Overnight. Post an ad–just a handbill–looking for work as a combination translator and assistant office manager. The second Tuesday after you put it up, go to a bar about a block away called Charny’s, just after local sundown. Go there again the following Tuesday, same time. If no one shows on your second visit, it means my people have been compromised, are gone, or were never there. Or you’ve got a tail, so they’re not going to show.” He met and held her gaze. “That’s all the information I have.”

Her smile was small but genuine. “I quite understand, Commodore. Basic operational security: we cannot reveal what we do not know.”

He nodded. “You know the drill better than I do. I just hope this helps.”

She stood. “It is a destination and a chance to preserve both my honor and my life.” She bowed slightly and held it. “Thank you, Commodore Riordan.”

He rose and returned her bow. She dipped slightly lower then turned and headed for the exit. She didn’t seem to be rushing–her individual motions appeared almost casual–but she was gone with remarkable speed.

Riordan waited thirty seconds and then strolled toward the darkened windows and the vehicle that Phalon surely had waiting just outside.