Marque of Caine – Snippet 14

Chapter Nine

July, 2123

Nevis, Earth

Richard Downing closed the cover of the transcripts. The hardcopy-only distribution signified how highly classified it was: sharing electronic documents virtually guaranteed that they would eventually fall into the wrong hands.

He poured another glass of seltzer, longed to add a touch of gin. Just a touch–

He grabbed the still-effervescing drink, downed it in a swallow so long that his esophagus cramped. He slammed the glass down, resisted the urge to bat it across the room, just to see and hear it smash. Two months now, and it still wasn’t any easier to stay sober. He wondered if it ever would be.

Downing pushed the transcripts away. Pretty much what he’d expected. IRIS’s new, externally-imposed Inquisitors had thought to cow Caine and Phalon. But, aided by Seaver, they had turned the tables. Unfortunately, according to the scuttlebutt, the Interbloc Working Group on Exosapient Interaction wasn’t going to risk more of the same. They were going to stall, not engage.

There would be days, even weeks, between each meeting. And every one would seem to bring Riordan a little closer to reaching the Dornaani and Elena. But then new wrinkles would emerge to erode the progress: a carefully-timed dance of one step forward, one step back. Which Caine probably expected, being the smart chap he was.

Downing almost shook his head. Caine, Caine: if you’d been just a little smarter, you’d have prevented others from learning just how smart you really are. Or unlearned your reflex to put yourself at risk for a friend, or a comrade. Damn it, Riordan: when will you learn to think of yourself first?

Richard’s mind rounded on him: And when will you not, Downing? The guilty thought lingered like the aftertaste of bile. The old counter-arguments and rationalizations rose up: his job necessitated what he did, necessitated putting the welfare of humanity ahead of every other consideration. Once again, he felt the terrible power, and the terrible truth, of those reasons.

But in the course of his doing that duty, Richard Downing had fallen from the high ground of necessary action into the gutter of simple expedience, had tumbled from principled prudence into a blind mania for risk-avoidance. Because someplace on that slippery slope, a place well behind him now, he had failed to notice when the exigencies and reasons for his work devolved into mere validations.

Downing discovered he was staring at the cover of the transcripts again, or rather, at its simple label: “Caine Riordan.” And for the fifth time that day, he thought: If I’m willing to break rules, I can probably turn this around. Despite being stripped of all day-to-day operational authority within IRIS, Richard still had his clearance, his rank, his access. If he played all those cards in the correct sequence, and quickly enough, there was a reasonable chance he could lower the official hurdles long enough for Riordan to jump over them all.

And don’t I have to do that, with Elena’s life at stake? Don’t I owe that much to Connor, and to the memory of her father, my best friend?

He looked at the folder. Of course, if I do this, I will burn. Literally, perhaps. But I owe this to them. Particularly Caine.

He angrily rebutted the morally bankrupt mantras that he’d memorized, that rose up now like wizened misers intent on decrying personal feelings for an intelligence asset... So what if I never explicitly guaranteed Riordan my loyalty? Does that really matter? After all, when does a person really become our friend: the first time we say it openly, or the day we realize and acknowledge it in our heart?

The day he met Caine, back in September, 2105, was one of those days. Downing had known–immediately, illogically, unreasonably–that here was a person with whom he fit. Riordan was the kind of bloke you could rely on, who’d forgive you your failings as you’d forgive his, and who you hoped you’d be sharing a pint with when you weren’t good for anything more than doddering up to the pub and back again . . .

The rapid tone of the commplex startled Downing out of his memory. Cautious, he accepted only the audio component of the incoming secure call.

“Mr. Downing?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“Kyle Seaver, intel liaison to Commander Phalon.”

“Ah, yes. I’ve just been reading the transcripts. Thank you for, er, ‘facilitating’ their delivery.”

“Happy to oblige, sir. I’m calling to tell you that Director Sukhinin has green-lighted your request to meet with The Patch.”

“Thank you, and please thank Vassily. And, Lieutenant Seaver?”

“Yes, sir?”

“I have another favor to ask of you.”

“On behalf of Commodore Riordan, sir?”

“I suppose one could put it that way. I have need of some special transportation–“

*     *     *

Caine Riordan pulled his shirt back down, resealed the tabless smartcollar, glanced at the faded walls as the doctor watched her commplex chew through the results of his physical. “Looks like it’s time for a new coat of paint, Dr. Brolley,” he observed.

She laughed. “At Walter Reed, that’s always true someplace. At least it’s not as bad as it was when they tore down half the facility in the 2050s. And if you don’t start calling me Christa, I’m going start calling you Commodore again.”

Riordan his hands in surrender. “You win, Christa.”

“That’s better,” she said agreeably–and then frowned at her screen. “This can’t be right.”

Caine raised an eyebrow. “What can’t be right?”

Although her words were addressed to Riordan, the majority of her attention remained on her commplex’s display. “Glitch in the system, I guess. The data is formatted correctly, but definitely off. Hmmm….no system warning, either.” She aimed her voice at the pickup. “Q-command: reboot.”

The screen went black as she turned back toward Caine. “So what’s the rush with this physical?”

“Might be travelling in a few weeks. Beyond quarantine control.”

Her smile became knowing. “Given what I’ve read about you, I’ve got to ask: how far beyond quarantine control?”

“I wish I knew,” Riordan answered honestly. “But if and when I get the green light, I need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

“Well, you will be, although given your exam request’s priority code, you were never going to be waiting in a line.”

“I’m very fortunate in my friends,” Caine said with what he hoped was a winning yet modest smile.

“I’ll say. If I had friends like that, I’d–” The commplex toned its readiness. “About time,” Brolley groused, and turned back to inspect it.

And frowned more deeply than she had before.

Riordan felt cool currents of concern creeping up his neck. “What is it?”

Brolley didn’t answer. Instead she strode toward him and said, “Lift your left pant leg, please.”

Caine complied.

She kneeled down, examined his tibia and calf. Her frown deepened. “Other leg, please.”

Caine obeyed and reflected that the last time he’d had both pants legs up this high, he had been fourteen, preparing to wade through his parents’ flooded basement.

Brolley leaned back, looked up. Her eyes were as focused and sharp as the scalpels on one of the nearby trays. “Which is the leg injured late in 2120? You know, during the incident you can’t discuss, on the planet you can’t reveal?”

He wiggled the left one. “If you know that much, don’t you have enough clearance for me to talk about the ‘incident’?”