Marque of Caine – Snippet 27

Chapter Seventeen

March, 2124

Second-Five, Zhal Prime (BD +71 482 A)

Riordan awoke with a start. He was in his quarters. Alnduul was standing close to the room’s iris valve, his eyes as somber as they had been in the dream . . .

No, not a dream. It had been too complete, too much like life itself in every detail . . .

Irzhresht appeared from behind Caine, skirting his cocoon-couch on her way to the exit, a control circlet in her hands. Except this circlet was more like the lower half of a helmet, much wider and thicker than the one he had used on Second-Five. Or, what I thought was Second-Five.

The iris valve dilated at Irzhresht’s approach, contracted into a seamless disk behind her.

Riordan glanced at Alnduul. “That wasn’t a dream.”

Alnduul’s outer eyelids cycled in slow motion. “That is correct.”

“Then what the hell was it?”

“A simulation.”

Riordan shook his head. “I’ve trained in sim chambers. You always know it’s not real. You can feel the sense suit and the three-dee helmet, feel how the sensagel changes temperature, increases or decreases pressure on your body. It’s all external. That,”–he pointed at the featureless portal through which Irzhresht had carried the heavy half-helmet–“that was internal. Direct manipulation of my mind.”


Riordan waited, but the Dornaani did not expand upon his reply. “That’s all you have to say? ‘Yes’?”

The Dornaani looked as though he’d rather be on another planet.

“Alnduul, if I wasn’t here to retrieve Elena, I’d demand you take me back to human space immediately. I’d rather face assassins than the possibility of having my mind hijacked every time I go to sleep. But since leaving isn’t an option, you’re going to tell me how and why you did this. If you don’t, our friendship–and my support of the Dornaani and Custodians–is over.”

Alnduul did something he had never done before: he looked away. “Threats are not necessary, Caine Riordan. I had hoped to express my deepest apologies before we began this conversation in earnest. But for you to truly understand the power of virtuality, it was essential that you experienced it without warning.”

“Wrong. Nothing is more essential than freedom of choice. Or don’t the Dornaani believe that individuals have the right to self-determination?”

“We do, Caine Riordan. But even in the most enlightened of your states, there are circumstances under which those rights may be abridged, albeit as briefly and mildly as possible.”

Caine rolled up out of the couch. “Cut the excuses, Alnduul. You didn’t even bother to seek my consent.”

“It was a violation. I have apologized. I shall do so again, if that will help.”

Riordan considered the exosapient’s tone. “But if you had the chance to do it again, you’d do the same thing.”

The Dornaani closed his eyes. “Yes. Because your safety is paramount.”

Caine studied Alnduul’s posture. One of the few nearly universal constants among the body language of the five known species was that a forward slouch like Alnduul’s signaled dejection. So maybe he really was trying to help me, or thinks so. “So how does surprising me with this sim ensure my safety?” And Alnduul, you’d better have a damn convincing reason.

The Dornaani’s reply was slow, the way one sibling would reveal something damning about another. “In the last five centuries, virtuality has become widespread within the Collective.” Alnduul swiveled his large eyes back to meet Caine’s. “As a result, many of my species are no longer reliable. Or forthright.”

“Because they spend time in some virtual playground? How does that–?”

“Beware of drawing hasty parallels, Caine Riordan.” Alnduul’s mouth quavered. “The social effects of your interactive entertainments are not analogous to those of virtuality. Think back upon your experience of it and you will implicitly understand the distinction.”

Riordan didn’t even get as far as a single reflective thought. The obvious answer pushed it aside: I never suspected it was an illusion. And it was exciting. There was always either a danger to overcome or a novelty to explore. If I hadn’t been shit-scared half of the time, it would have been one hell of a ride. Caine nodded. “So the Dornaani are spending way too much time in virtuality.” He saw where that could lead. “Detachment? Diminished empathy? Decreased social skills and instincts?”

Alnduul stiffly imitated a human shake of his head. “It goes much further than that. But at least, you now have the necessary context to understand what causes much of the disaffection you may encounter in the Collective: the seduction of constant sensory gratification.” His fingers drooped. “Ironically, the version you experienced has the least fidelity of any form of virtuality.”

Riordan blinked. “But . . . it was seamless.”

“Was it? Think back carefully. Initially, you probably felt that your vision was blurred. You may also recall that olfactory sensations were less acute than normal. Taste is even more affected.”

Riordan nodded slowly. “But you chose a scenario in which I didn’t have much reason to focus on smell or taste, and which left me no time to notice that they weren’t as keen as usual.”

Alnduul raised both index fingers slowly. “All so that I might now ask this one question: would you enjoy entering virtuality again?” His two fingers became rigid. “Do not answer according to what you think, but what you feel.”

Riordan shrugged. “If going back was my own choice? Then, yes.”

“Despite the dangers?”

Riordan shrugged. “They are no dangers if you know it isn’t real.” Even as he said it, Caine felt the deeper implications of Alnduul’s warning rising around him.

The Dornaani’s inner eyelids nictated once. “Perpetual excitement without risk is a powerful stimulant. An opiate, even.” He looked away again. “Only by feeling the seductive appeal of virtuality yourself could I be certain that you would then understand and heed this warning: the Collective’s high ideals are not always manifested in deed. Accordingly, be prepared to act as your own advocate in all matters.”

Riordan realized that his shoulders had slumped almost as much as Alnduul’s. Although Dornaani motivations were enigmatic and their engagement uncertain, humanity had reposed a basic sense of security in the support of the Collective. But now, Caine realized, he had the dubious honor of being the first to discover just how mistaken and misplaced that confidence might be.

Still, before the topic slipped away, there were important questions to be asked. “So, the technologies we used on Zhar Second-Five: are they real or not?”

“Many are.” Alnduul gestured for Riordan to follow him through the iris valve. “Others were probably real at one time, but have been lost to us. However, the most extraordinary accomplishments–such as the drift butte and the gravity thrusters–are objects of legend, myths arising from misperception or whimsy.”

Riordan felt a shade of disappointment flit past. The real world seemed a shabbier, less exciting place if there weren’t floating mountains or anti-gravity backpacks to be found somewhere. “And Zhar Second-Five itself? Was that real?”

Alnduul led them toward the bridge. “The satellite’s actual environment is less congenial to both our biologies. Accordingly, its density in the simulation was doubled, thereby increasing its gravity to sixty percent of Earth’s. In consequence, it retained most of its free oxygen. We also adjusted the star so that it experienced fewer flares, resulting in less atmospheric erosion.”

As they entered the bridge, Alnduul gestured toward the largest hologram. The actual planet-moon system was displayed there in arresting detail. “In actuality, Second-Five has little more than point four gravity. The crucially thinner atmosphere requires a compressor mask. The fauna are significantly smaller and less energetic. Your own catalogues correctly identify the star’s spectral type and magnitude as M1.5 V. The ambient light tends to be dull and reddish, and the vegetation is neither so colorful nor so pervasive.”

Riordan watched the small satellite make its way around the large central planet, experienced a sense of cognitive dissonance so strong that it felt like vertigo. Looking closely, he saw every detail that Alnduul had described–and yet, he could still see the Komodo torpedoes charging him, could still hear the swoop of the snake-gliders . . .

Alnduul spoke from his elbow. “Virtuality claims the authority of our senses. For any species that still depends upon those senses for survival, nothing can leave a deeper imprint.”

Riordan nodded, tore his eyes away from the sad little holographic world, resolved to mentally bury the pseudo-experiences beneath its forlorn surface. In the same instant, he wondered how long it would take for even a highly sophisticated and orderly mind to begin to confuse actual and virtual events, sensations, experiences.

Alnduul’s voice was no longer at his shoulder. “We have just now completed refueling at the orbital tankage facility.” Riordan turned, discovered the Dornaani considering the slowly rotating stellar holosphere. He pointed into it; a glowing reproduction of his fingertip began tracing a path from the bottom of the three-dee plot to the center. “From here, we shall shift through Pi Ursa Majoris, then lay over briefly at BD +66 582. After that, we have but one more system, LP 38-98, between us and the regional Capitol at BD +80 238.”

“And that’s where I’ll find Elena?”

“I believe so.”

Riordan didn’t even try to keep his voice level: “You believe so? What the hell kind of answer is that?”

Alnduul’s fingers spread until they pointed away from his body in all directions. “We Custodians were compelled to her care to the Collective’s experts. They were deemed more likely to restore her to a condition that would permit surgery. They declined to send updates.”

Caine closed his eyes. “Every time I ask you a question about Elena, it seems I get further away from her.”

Alnduul’s head lowered slightly. “I am sorry, Caine Riordan. I wish it was not so.” He sat, raised a finger toward the only other crewmember on the bridge. “Lock in our vector for out-shift. Commence preacceleration. Full thrust.”