Marque of Caine – Snippet 20

Riordan nodded. “You two make a pretty good team.”

“We did. I guess we still do.” The car braked hard, pushing them sideways against their straps. “Here we are. Move out. Sir.”

Riordan threw off the straps, took a long step to the opening door–and stopped in surprise. There, clearly visible beyond a double docking collar, was a short passageway he knew very well: the entry to his old ship, the Puller. But, even as Ed’s hand locked firmly on his bicep and began propelling him forward into the boarding tube, Caine realized that although this was indeed a Wolfe-class corvette, it was not Puller. She had none of the same dings and dents. Or Slaasriithi modifications.

Ed explained, “There are three corvettes inside this cargo container: Mercer, Cradock, and Bridges.” They crossed over the coaming as the tempo of preflight checks and clipped bridge chatter accelerated. “This corvette, Mercer, has extra fuel: she can sprint a long time.” They headed aft. “The other two Wolfe’s are carrying double ordnance loads. They fight, we run.”

“Then why are you leading me away from the bridge?”

“Because Mercer has also been retrofitted with an escape system.”

Caine rounded the corner into what would have been, on any other Wolfe-class corvette, the last bunkroom–and saw a nightmare, instead. An escape pod. The kind that not only powered you swiftly away from a stricken ship, but automatically strapped you down and forced you into cryogenic suspension. “This isn’t neces–“

Ed pushed him hard from behind. “I know you hate this, Commodore. If I’d been in an icebox as often as you have, I’d feel the same way.” There was a loud kra-thrunk, a sudden sideways motion, and a shift in balance. “Mercer‘s away, sir. You’ve got to get in. Now.”

Riordan nodded, started stripping off his duty suit, hung on to the collarcom. Schoeffel’s voice was snapping rapid orders: “PDF batteries three and four, keep an eye on planet horizon to aft: slower drones could come from that direction. Cradock, you have the ball when we go active with the remote arrays. Comms, I need redundant lascom links to all ships and platforms. Yolanda?”

“Flight here. What you need, skipper?”

“Push those skimmers out further; make them look like patrolling hunter-drones.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll try.”

“You do that. And stay in our shadow as long as you can.”

“No argument there, Down-Under.”

Then a voice that was more surprised than worried, more perplexed than urgent. “Captain, Sensor Ops here.”

“I can see your code, Mister Guzman. What have you got?”

“I’m not sure, Captain. I–“

“Holy shit!” shouted another voice; the tone froze Riordan in place. “What the hell is that?”

“Energy spike. Range seven light minutes. No! Range one light min–wait. This can’t be–“

“It’s the Dornaani!” yelled the XO, Malatesta.

“Or Ktor, or something else,” Schoeffel said in a loud, grim voice. “Settle down. This could be a trick.” The channel changed. Peña’s own collarcom toned. “Eddie: is the package secure?”

“He’s just about to–“

“Eddie: secure the damn package! Now!”

Peña put a hand on his holster. “I don’t want to use the tranq gels, Commodore.”

Riordan nodded, felt Mercer buck and rock: evasive action. He jumped into the cryopod, flopping face-down on the belly-couch. Orders and counter-orders screamed out of his collarcom. One of the shuttle pilots yelled about a new bogey–then static.

Peña slapped the pod actuator, shouted, “Package secure!”

Restraints went over Caine’s arms, shoulders, waist, legs, and snapped tight. The belly couch slammed forward, locked in place as the cover descended and sealed overhead: an egg bounded within an egg.

The collarcom was still emitting commands and curses and shouts about the Arat Kur and the Dornaani and the new bogeys when Riordan felt the first needle go into his arm: just as brisk, as efficient, and as icy as the first time, five years ago.

The synthetic morphine rushed into him and then flowed rapidly outward, into his extremities, a sensation at once warm and treacherous as he tried to hold on to thoughts that might very well be his last:

Connor’s sun-brightened smile. Elena’s high cheekbones and fine nose. Then Caine was there with her, their eyes and their lips moving closer, closer–but instead of a kiss, their faces flowed together, merged. And became Connor’s.

Just before darkness washed in from everywhere, drowning everything.

Chapter Thirteen

March, 2124

Deep space, GJ 1119


More accurately, just a vague awareness that he existed. True consciousness–the immense web of associations that create selfhood–followed an instant later, but was still indistinct. Then, with a rush, he was inside that web, inhabiting it–

He awoke with a gasp, tearing himself out of an ink-black dream of blind drowning–

“You are safe, Caine Riordan.”

Caine realized his eyes were open. The light was soft and diffuse, and the ceiling–if that’s what it was–curved gently over him, a muted white. Memory summoned the face that went along with the voice: “Alnduul?”

“Yes. Be at your ease. Allow the restoratives to hasten your recovery. Distress impedes their function.”

Riordan discovered he was lying upon a slightly yielding surface, his body covered by a thin, but surprisingly warm, sheet. Alnduul’s large eyes were visible over the twin crests of his draped feet.

Memory rushed back in. “The ship, the Down-Under: is it–?”

Alnduul rose. “Captain Schoeffel sends her regards and wishes you ‘god speed.'” Centered beneath his large eyes, the Dornaani’s single nostril flared slightly. “The shift-carrier and all but one of its subcraft survived the encounter.”

“I suspect we have you to thank for that.”

The Dornaani’s head bowed stiffly: seen from that top-down angle, it was reminiscent of a teardrop, the narrow end a tapering postcranial ridge. “We did intercede. But it should never have occurred.”

“What do you mean?”

Alnduul’s mouth, a flexible and unsightly lamprey sucker, pulled back from its extruded position, became a brittle rictus. “We arrived at the star you catalogue as Wolf 424 A two weeks before the arrival window. However, our anti-matter stocks were lower than planned and it was necessary to return to the Collective and refuel, which took far longer than it should have. The ship which deposited the attack drones arrived and hid during our absence. The fault was ours.”

Caine raised himself up on his elbows. As he did, the bed–if that’s what it was–rose up to support him. “You could hardly have expected an Arat Kur attack.”

“That does not absolve us of failing to be present. Besides, it was not the Arat Kur who attacked you.”

Riordan frowned. “Alnduul, those drones were Arat Kur. No doubt about it.”

“They were Arat Kur craft, but they were neither provided nor controlled by the Arat Kur themselves.” One of the four reedlike fingers of Alnduul’s left hand gestured toward the deck: a negation. “Both the Arat Kur and your own post-war monitors indicate that all their interstellar craft were accounted for during the three weeks preceding the attack. This is confirmed by our own intelligence.

“However, hundreds of their drones were arrogated by your government for technical study. They are held in various secret locations. One of those was doubtless the source of the attack drones.”

Riordan’s stomach knotted. “But that means it had to be one of our shift carriers which ferried them to Wolf 424 A. So it must still be there. It would take at least thirty days to preaccelerate.”

“It is presumed to be hiding. Wolf 424 A and B both boast numerous airless worlds and satellites, as well as asteroids large enough to conceal a dozen human shift-carriers.” Alnduul considered Riordan gravely. “It is distressing to see that members of your own species remain determined to end your life, Caine Riordan. Do you require further rest, or are you ready to move about?”

“I’m ready, but I’m surprised Schoeffel didn’t request your help in trying to find the shift carrier.”

“She was unwilling to incur either the delay or risk to do so,” Alnduul answered as he led them through the opening iris valve into the curved corridor beyond. “Besides, I could not have complied.”

Riordan stared. “You would have refused?”

The Dornaani’s outer eyelids nictated twice, so forcefully and rapidly that they made an audible snik-snik! “I would have been glad to render aid, but it is beyond my mandate to interfere in what is a purely human matter.”

Riordan glanced over at his host. “But the attackers were in neutral space and you’re a Custodian. A Senior Mentor.”

“I am,” the Dornaani confirmed. “At least for now.”

Caine slowed. “What’s happened?”

Alnduul did not reduce his pace. “Consequences of the failed Convocation, and the invasion of your homeworld, continue to unfold. Even in the Collective.”

“And continue to impact your fortunes, it seems.”

“That was inevitable.” Alnduul waved two casual fingers in the wake of that assertion. “As we move deeper into the Collective, you will attain a deeper understanding of the situation.”