Marque of Caine – Snippet 21

Riordan hoped his friend was correct. “So when do we start?”

“‘Start’?” Alnduul halted before an iris valve so finely crafted that its scalloped sections seemed to be one seamless surface.

“I mean, start our journey.”

The Dornaani’s eyes cycled slowly. “We already have.” He waved a hand at the portal.

The valve dilated and Alnduul advanced into the compartment beyond, gesturing toward what looked like a cross between a couch and a cocoon. “Be seated, if you wish.”

But Riordan was rooted in the doorway, flat-footed, staring.

This larger compartment and its machinery were also streamlined. However, the words “compartment” and “machinery” didn’t really seem to fit. Caine had the sensation of standing inside a slightly recontoured egg, and the machinery hardly resembled the tightly-fitted utilitarian controls that typified a human bridge. It resembled the appointments of a trendy entertainment room: multi-purpose furniture; sleek surfaces made of smart materials that adjusted to the posture and position of the crew; dynamically reconfigurable controls and read-outs which, when inactive, vanished, leaving the surface featureless.

Only the four startlingly detailed holograms suggested that it was a working bridge. Three were straightforward: a comprehensive display of the current stellar system, the neighborhood of nearby stars, and a constantly rotating view of the hull. The fourth appeared to be a geometric mobile made of bright, shifting geometric shapes.

Alnduul wandered over to that floating collection of interfaced spheres and disks and touched two lightly. The mobile morphed: the spheres transformed into tetrahedrons that spun, bulged, narrowed in response to changes in the slightly tilted disks and a few dancing motes that intermittently linked them. Caine stared at the display, felt like a toddler facing an unfathomable device that adults operated with ease.

Alnduul moved to one of the hybrid couch-cocoons. It reconfigured into a saddle-shaped command chair. A tray of controls and read-outs emerged from its seamless side. “You look concerned, Caine Riordan.”

“How do you control the ship if its smart materials are damaged?”

By way of answer, Alnduul touched one of the few non-dynamic controls on the side of his chair. The section of the deck closest to the bow rose up, revealing a dense cluster of more familiar controls, and two Dornaani chairs. “This conventional bridge module can also be raised and activated manually. There is another in the auxiliary bridge. And in the event that we lose remote sensing . . . ” The room’s forward-sloping bulkhead seemed to ripple, then peeled back in reticulated segments like a lobster impossibly hitching up its skirts–to reveal the stars.

Caine smiled out through the oversized cockpit blister, then pushed himself over to the astrographic position hologram, the largest of the four by an order of magnitude. He pointed into the slowly rotating blizzard of multi-hued chips of light. “So, are we at the central star?”

Alnduul’s couch finished transmogrifying itself by adding a high backrest. “We are. In your catalogs, it is listed as GJ 1119.”

Caine frowned, examined the stars more closely. He had seen the center of this configuration many times before: on the bridge of the Down-Under. “This system: it’s only a few shifts beyond where you picked me up.”

“That is correct.”

For a moment, Riordan wasn’t sure why this alarmed him. Then his body provided the answer: subtle signs that he’d been in long-duration cryogenic suspension. Although the pervasive fishy-glycerin taste and smell of the blood substitute was not strong, his swollen eyes painted faint halos around bright lights, and there was a persistent, tingling itch in his extremities and mucosa. “How much time has passed since the ambush at Wolf 424, Alnduul?”

The Dornaani may have paused a moment. “Thirteen weeks.”

Riordan turned to stare. “During which you’ve made–what?–five shifts?” Riordan sat. The couch tried to turn into a chair; he pushed the smart fabric away. Like a spurned pet, it recoiled and lay quiet. “Alnduul, your ships can make a shift every week. What’s been happening?”

The Dornaani’s outer lids cycled very slowly. “The Collective has become indecisive. Upon returning to refuel, we were informed that clearance for unrestricted travel had not yet been granted.”

“Wait: are you telling me that you don’t have freedom of movement in your own systems?”

“I do, Caine Riordan. But not while carrying a human from the Consolidated Terran Republic. When your invitation was approved, I presumed freedom of movement was included. Shortly after our rendezvous, I was informed that this was not the case.” Alnduul burbled fitfully. “The events surrounding your arrival stimulated considerable debate. The Senior Arbiters of the Collective have gathered at the regional Capitol to deliberate upon how they wish to interact with you.”

“They’re only doing that after I’ve arrived?”

 Alnduul’s mouth twisted unevenly. “I understand your frustration, and your desire to return home with Elena Corcoran as soon as possible. I can only assure you that we shall not waste a single hour in idleness.”

Riordan nodded his thanks, smiled, felt rue bend his lips. “Actually, you don’t need to accelerate my return. Hell, I’m not even sure I can go back.”

“You refer to the risk of assassination?”

“Well . . . that, too.”

Alnduul’s inner eyelid nictated so quickly it seemed more like a flutter. “There is a further threat to you?”

Caine looked away. “When I was on Disparity, one of the Slaasriithi worlds, my respirator was sabotaged and my lungs were infected with spores geneered to incapacitate humans. I was as good as dead. Even the Slaasriithi physicians couldn’t help me.”

Alnduul sat in a very erect position. The focus of his large eyes was unnerving.

“They had a treatment, but it required special permission.” Riordan shrugged. “None of us thought much of it at the time.”

Alnduul’s mouth had puckered into a rigid asterisk. “They administered the theriac.”

Riordan nodded slowly. “That’s what they called it, yes.”

“And you have discovered that it has–other properties.”

Caine nodded again, shared Brolley’s findings. Alnduul sat unmoving during the silence that followed.

“Well?” Caine prompted.

Alnduul shut his eyes, left them that way: a reaction Riordan had never witnessed in a Dornaani. When Alnduul finally spoke, he did so slowly and quietly. “Since you arrived at Convocation, much of humanity’s path has been generally foreseeable. But this could not be anticipated.”

“So is the theriac a positive or a negative variable in your calculus?”

Alnduul kept his eyes closed. “It is too early to tell. The ultimate context of this event will be determined by what follows, not what came before.” He opened his eyes. “You were wise to foresee that the theriac problematizes your return to the Consolidated Terran Republic. If your leaders are prudent, they will suppress news of its existence.”

Riordan discovered a perverse impulse to become the devil’s advocate. “Don’t you think Earth has had just about enough information control for one century, Alndu–?”

“No!” It was the first time Riordan had ever heard a Dornaani raise his or her voice. “Do not be blinded by the debates over your government’s control of information about exosapients, about IRIS, about your attending Convocation, about what came before the Accord, about the impossible plenitude of green worlds. Even the question of whether or not the Ktor should be revealed as humans pales in comparison.

“This, the theriac, has the power to change everything–unpredictably, cataclysmically–in the space of a single decade. No one can ‘manage’ such news; the theriac is the social equivalent of a force majeur. Once revealed, you cannot control the effects. The most your leaders can do is to ready your species for the changes that will follow as surely as thunder follows lightning.”

During the war, Riordan had been marooned in space, but even then, he had not felt so gnawingly, chillingly isolated as he did now. “So, the theriac is not just a retroactive cure-all.”

All of Alnduul’s fingers jabbed downward. “No. It is much more than that. It confers a variety of unusual immunities. It resets and replenishes the rejuvenatory systems of your body.” The Dornaani studied the look on his Riordan’s face. “No: it does not confer immortality, Caine Riordan, but you will not age as swiftly and, in time, there will be no way to conceal that discrepancy.” He looked away. “We must put this topic aside for now. Let us turn to something practical: familiarizing you with my ship and its crew.”

Caine rose, mentally readying himself for an extended meet and greet with scores of socially reserved Dornaani. “Okay, let’s start with your crew.” While I still have enough energy to do so.

“Very well. Because this is an unusual mission, my current crew is somewhat larger than usual.”

Just great. “Well then, let’s get going. We don’t want to be at it for hours.”

Alnduul stared at him. “Caine Riordan, counting myself, there are seven on the Olsloov. Afterward, I will familiarize you with our basic emergency systems, should there be a mishap during our shift to LP 60-179. Please follow me.”