Marque of Caine – Snippet 16

“And if there’s none in your blood, or if we can’t figure it out from what we find there, we’d need you here. For research.”

Riordan leaned back. “Listen to yourself, Christa. You may mean that in a humane context, but tell me: how many of your colleagues would be tempted to suggest vivisection if all other experimental avenues prove fruitless?”

The color drained out of Brolley’s face. “Shit.”

Caine held in a sigh of relief. “You know I’m right. You know they’d recommend that, given what’s at stake.”

She was motionless, her face pinched, for several long seconds. Then she nodded. “I can’t deny it. Most wouldn’t, but some would. And a lot of those are the power-players. That’s how it is in research. Ruthlessness and monomania tends to get promoted fastest. And then runs roughshod over human rights and social wisdom almost every time. Okay. I agree. But I’m not sure I can give you the blackout period you need.”

A new wave of cold passed through Riordan. “Why not?”

“Because your exam results are already in the system. They get centralized before they are sent to me, not the other way around.”

“And you can’t get to the central records and delete or hide them for a while?”

“I’m a doctor, not a hacker. Sorry.”

Riordan thought. “When you get unusual results like this, and you want to confirm them before they get passed on to other doctors or institutions, what happens?”

Brolley frowned. “I delay authorization of release if the results are incomplete or need further review by a specialist. Which I could easily justify, given how whacky these results are. I could claim that I was researching precedents and trying to schedule you for a second set of comparative tests. That would keep the results under the rug for a while, but would create another problem.”

“What’s that?”

“How do I clear you for your trip if I can’t release the results of your physical?”

Riordan thought back to the various examinations he’d been subjected to over the years. “Except for when I’ve returned from beyond the CTR quarantine line, all I ever see is a report that my physical was passed.”

Brolley shook her head. “That’s a general physical, like the kind you are given before participating in a sport or entering service. You got the works, today. There’s no way to hide that.”

“Okay, but can we change the order in which you conducted the two levels of physical?”

Brolley folded her arms. “‘Conducted the two levels of physical?’ I only conducted one, and you know it.”

Caine shoved off the exam table. “Let’s say I came in here to simply get a general physical. Which I could have chosen. In the course of that, you would have noticed the absence of my scars. That would then have prompted the complete physical. But it would have occurred after you had given me a clean bill of health on the general physical.”

Brolley raised an eyebrow. “So now you’re asking me to lie about performing two physicals?”

Caine started removing his shirt. “You can perform the general physical now, if you like.”

She waved for him to stop. “No, no: I already know you are in very–well, freakishly–good health.” She nodded. “I’ll report that you passed a general physical. That will clear you for travel.”

“Great. And thank you. This means a lot to me.” Caine shook her hand, headed for the door.

Brolley called after him. “I can’t guarantee how long I can keep the full results under wraps, though. So don’t waste any time.”

“I won’t. You can count on that.”

Brolley smiled, waved. “Well then, nice meeting you. And bon voyage.”

Caine returned the smile and the wave, and exited at a brisk pace. Now more than ever, he had to leave as quickly as possible.

Or he was never going to get off Earth at all.

*     *     *

As soon as the door closed and Riordan’s footsteps faded from hearing, Christa Brolley went to her desk, tapped the screen.

The commplex brightened. “Ready,” it affirmed.

“Voice grade only. Encrypt and scramble. Connect to secure contact number fourteen.”

“Connecting.” A pause. “Secure contact number fourteen requires authorization code.”

“Submit code.”

“Submitting. Contact established.”

A new voice answered: the audio filtering made it sound like a drunk talkbot. “Sign is ginger blossom.”

“Countersign is cherry ale. Subject examination is complete. Am forwarding results by live courier. Require temporary removal of report from central records. Can you comply?”

“We can comply. When did the subject depart?”

“One minute ago.” She couldn’t keep from asking, “Am I done now?”

“Negative. Further instructions may follow. Disconnect so we can purge record of this contact.”

“Disconnecting,” confirmed Christa Brolley.

Who severed the link, powered down the commplex, and, elbows propped on her desk, leaned her head forward into her trembling hands.

Chapter Ten

July, 2123

Nevis, Earth

The approaching aircar’s body was coated with smart pixel laminate; it was a restless canvas of ever-changing and eye-gouging ads. Downing’s two new guards stared at the clearance code it was sending to the taller one’s dataslate, watched as it was checked against and matched the travel permit code they’d received twenty minutes earlier. She turned toward Richard. “That’s your ride, Director Downing.” Although it was a statement, the rising tone at the end made it sound like a question.

Downing affected to stare at the vehicle in surprise. “It’s not what I was expecting either, Ms. Oruna. I just hope it flies better than it looks.”

She smiled. “Enjoy your time out of the box, sir.”

“I shall indeed,” he answered cheerily, presenting his wristlink to the other security officer. The man swept a control wand over the government-issued wearable as the vehicle landed, kicking up dust and grit. “Your perimeter constraint is deactivated, Director Downing. It reactivates in three hours. Don’t be late, sir.”

“I don’t dare,” Richard answered as he walked toward the vehicle, one of its gull-wing doors rising. “I’m told this carriage turns into a pumpkin after that.”

The male guard stared, either unfamiliar with the reference or too glum to care. Agent Oruna grinned with one side of her mouth.

Downing made his way around the far side of the dark-windowed aircar, waved as he slipped into it.

As the door closed, he turned to the solitary passenger. “I take it this is one of your cars, Captain Weber?”

David Weber–who, in a room full of big men would still have stood out as an especially big man–shrugged with what Downing presumed to be his good shoulder. “In a manner of speaking, Director.” He aimed his voice at the audio pickup. “Q-command: commence route.”

The air car’s reply was closer to normal speech than most airtaxis: one of the telltale signs that it only looked like a public conveyance. “Commencing trip to Capitol Mall. ETA: four minutes.”

Downing watched as the office building that was actually a safehouse dropped away, shrank, and became just another glimmering tile in the mirror-windowed architectural collage that was Chantilly, Virginia. “Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice.”

“Well, Mr. Downing, you are still a Director.”

Downing exhaled a weak laugh. “In name only, Captain, in name only.”

Weber shook his head. “Not to all of us, sir.” The grey-green eye on the right side of his face was hardly more expressive than the patch where the left one should have been. That cyclopean gaze softened a moment later. “Besides, sir, we have a mutual friend.”

“Which one, Captain? Rinehart? Sukhinin? Phalon? Seaver, even?”

“I suppose I should correct my statement, Director Downing. We have quite a few mutual friends. Better you don’t know which one made today’s ride possible. Now, what can I do for you?”