Marque of Caine – Snippet 17

That was Weber–a.k.a. The Patch–to a tee: discreet, formal, business like, and more heart than he was usually willing to show. Bloody hell: he could have been English. “I need some requests–which are in fact requirements–processed quickly.”

“I can help with that, Director. Do they concern Commodore Riordan?”

Downing could not keep from smiling. “In fact, they do. Shall I transmit them to your wristlink?”

Weber nodded, watched as Downing started the transfer. “Sir, because of the channels I monitor, I think I have an idea of what those requests might be.”

Downing looked up, raised an eyebrow. “Then I’m sure you are also aware that any request which involves another organization–let us say, the State Department–should be allowed to move at a normal pace. To avoid detection.”

Weber nodded. “Yes. But if my latest reports are accurate, that may not be a luxury that we–or Commodore Riordan–can afford.”

Downing forgot about his datalink, looked full into Weber’s face. What have you heard, David? And why won’t you say it straight out? He spent an extra second waiting, hoping that continued scrutiny might wring another useful fact or two out of the big man.

But Weber’s was a good face for playing poker, for keeping secrets. Many of which pertained to the mysterious combination of good fortune and sheer will he had used to rebuild his life after having a control frigate blasted out from under him at the Battle of Barnard’s Star in 2119. One of the most seasoned officers on station, he had been the deputy commander of the contingent of manned hulls which had remained behind to control the decoy ships.

Not much more than armed frameworks, the decoys had engaged the Arat Kur fleet, ultimately convincing them that they had destroyed most of Earth’s force in being. However, because the decoys were uncrewed, they had required direction from control frigates. And since authentically swift reaction times required that the range between them remained under 305,000 kilometers, the much smaller frigates had come under fire from the Arat Kur equivalent of capitol ships. They had been ruthlessly savaged.

That Weber survived at all was a near-miracle; he was one of only six from his own ship. That he was walking straight and tall and not merely performing but excelling at his tasks as leader of the Oversight Directorate of Interbloc Network Systems was in full defiance of the most optimistic clinical projections of his recovery.

And yet, some part of him had not come back from beyond the farther orbits of Barnard’s Star: that part which used to laugh long and deep and was fond of puns that left entire wardrooms groaning. That part of David Weber was still MIA, out beyond the wreckage of his ship and the monomolecular remains of his crew.

Weber’s return stare showed no sign of relenting. “Sir, the actions you are contemplating must be completed swiftly. And they will be impossible to conceal entirely.”

Downing nodded. “I presumed that, Captain.” He glanced at Weber’s datalink. “Tell me: can it be done?”

Weber was scanning the requests. “It has to be, sir. So, yes. Failure is not an option.”

Those had been Weber’s last words before he went off-line at Barnard’s Star. “That’s something of a motto of yours, isn’t it, David?”

Weber touched his eyepatch distractedly. He answered in a lower, slower voice. “There have been times I wish it wasn’t.” Then, as an afterthought: “Sir.”

Downing would have liked to pat the poor fellow on what was said to be an entirely artificial knee, envisioned himself doing it: a wiry scarecrow tapping a gigantic partial-tin-man in a feeble gesture of solace. He decided against it. “That motto has come with a heavy cost,” Downing observed soberly.

 “Honor demanded no less, sir,” Weber replied. “We’ll get it done.”

Downing nodded, looked out the window: the Reflecting Pool was looming up at them as they dropped toward the vertipad just behind the Lincoln Monument. “I say, Weber, I’m wondering if you could by any chance initiate a scan for–“

Weber was already looking up from his palmtop. “Riordan’s right there, sir. Near the Vietnam War memorial.” As the door started to rise, he added, “Watch your step, Director.”

Downing had the powerful impression that Weber was not just referring to exiting the aircar.

*     *     *

Caine detected Downing’s approach more out of reflex and instinct than a conscious application of training. Riordan turned to face away from him, began walking slowly through the crowds lining the south side of the Reflecting Pool.

Within half a minute, strolling slightly faster, Downing had caught up to him. They slowed in sync with each other, keeping two loud groups of tourists on either side of them.

“I thought you were sequestered,” Caine said softly, not turning to look at Richard.

“I am. But it’s the kinder variety. You can get out for a stroll now and again, enjoy the occasional conjugal visit.” Downing’s weak sputter of sardonic laughter sounded more weary than bitter.

“I see. Well then, since meeting here isn’t wild coincidence, I don’t know whether I should be honored or worried.”

Downing stared up at the sun, said casually, “You have to leave.”

“I know. Just as soon as I’m able to–“

“No, Caine. You can’t wait until you’re ‘able to’.”

Riordan almost missed a step. “I’m not sure what that means.”

“It means that if you hang about to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, you will be too late. You have to go now. Before the Interbloc Working Group can announce new hearings and slap a new sequestration order on you.”

Riordan glanced briefly at Downing. Is this timing chance, or does he still have enough connections to–? “Have you heard?”

Now it was Downing who looked surprised. “Heard what?”

“The results of my physical. At Walter Reed.”

Downing shook his head. “No. Tell me.”

Caine did.

Towards the end of Caine’s one-minute synopsis, Downing appeared so stunned that he almost veered off the promenade. “So that’s why The Patch was pushing,” he murmured.

“Who or what is ‘The Patch’?”

“Doesn’t matter.” Downing was already refocused. In fact, he seemed more focused than Caine had seen him since the war. “It so happens I can get you out.”

“So you’ve said.”

“No, Caine: I’m talking about a radically accelerated timeline. Even more accelerated than I was assuming five minutes ago. That Slaasriithi treatment might be much more than an elixir; it could be the bloody fountain of youth. And they will not allow you to leave when they realize that you are the only known source.”

“Yep: that’s why I’m trying to leave. But it takes time to get the State Department to–“

Downing turned and took Riordan by the shoulders. “Caine, this is no longer about how fast you can act. The only question is how fast I can act. And, with the help of some friends, the answer is, ‘very fast indeed.'”

Caine frowned. “Just how fast is ‘very fast indeed’?”

Downing checked his wristlink, nodded at what he saw there. “We’ll have you on your way tonight.”