Marque of Caine – Snippet 33

Thlunroolt leaned forward. “Is it extortion to simply ask that, just as I have promised you my silence, you promise me yours in this instance?” He glanced sideways at Caine. “Besides, unless I miss my guess, you mean to include the human in your project, which will necessitate expanding the scope of my silence.”

Riordan looked from one Dornaani to the other. Extortion? Silence? Project? What the hell are they talking about?

The two glared at each other until Alnduul drifted two fingers through the air. “We are agreed, then.”

Riordan shook his head. “Wait a minute–“

Thlunroolt wasn’t listening, remained focused on Alnduul. “So: it is as I thought. You have not informed Caine Riordan of your project–“

Riordan raised his voice. “Stop. Both of you.What, exactly, is this project?”

Alnduul let his hands descend toward the ground: reassurance, de-escalation, calming. “Caine Riordan, I shall explain, to the extent that I may, when we are back aboard Olsloov.” He turned to his assistant, Ssaodralth. “Hasten back to the shuttle. Prepare it for immediate return.”

“Are we not remaining here to–?”

“Our plans have changed.” He glanced at Thlunroolt. “Significantly.”

Ssaodralth made the gesture of farewell and headed back in the direction from whence they had come. Thlunroolt and Alnduul followed at a leisurely pace. The old mentor glanced over at the Caine when he drew abreast of them. “I regret that we shall not finish the spawning day together, human. You were an acceptable companion.” His mouth twisted. “Albeit a restless one, at times.” His expression grew more serious. “It is customary that a visitor such as yourself is given a token of our esteem and appreciation. However, I have no idea what gift might please a human.”

The comment hung in the air: an oblique inquiry. Riordan only had to think a moment. “A book. Particularly one on Dornaani history.”

Thlunroolt’s mouth flattened against his face slightly. “That is an unusual request. Reasonable–praiseworthy, even–but unusual. Why do you desire such a book?”

Riordan shrugged. “Except for the synopsis in the self-reference you gave us at Convocation, we don’t know a thing about your past.”

The old Dornaani’s gills closed with a snuffling sound. “I suspect that was what the Collective intended. And the Custodians are not at liberty to reveal information about any race, not even their own.”

Riordan nodded. “Well, if histories are off-limits, any personal narrative would do. Anything that shows life as it’s lived in your communities.”

Thlunroolt uttered a wheezing grunt. “‘Communities.’ As if we still have any.”

Riordan frowned. “But you’ve spoken of capitols, of cities–“

“Those,” Thlunroolt interrupted, “are population centers. Other than this world and a few others, the Collective is an atomized society.”

Caine’s palms and soles chilled. “Then how do you function?”

Thlunroolt stopped, head drooping as he leaned back, pushing his walking stick into the ground. For a moment, he seemed almost human, like one of the antediluvian Chesapeake locals of Caine’s youth, preparing to dispense a crotchety mixture of local lore and dubious advice. “I would be candid with you, Caine Riordan. If you are amenable to that.”

“I welcome your candor.” Caine meant it. Mostly.

 “Then do not ask how we ‘function.'”

“Is the question too intrusive?”

“No; it is pointless, compared to what you should be asking.”

Riordan managed not to smile in gratitude. “Tell me.”

Thlunroolt looked up. “How do five separate species all have ‘homeworlds’ within the boundaries of our tiny Accord: an astrographic sphere only one hundred and fifty light years in diameter? How is it that those races evolved so as to exist at the same moment in time? Why do all of us breathe essentially the same atmosphere? Why do so many worlds happily have just that atmosphere?” He huffed. “These matters should incite more urgent investigation than the technology you arrogated from your attackers. But like most primitive cultures, your reflex is one of stimulus and response: to focus entirely on the issues and the tactics of the moment.”

Riordan allowed himself to smile. “Whereas the Collective’s reaction to the war was consistent with the decrepitude of its advanced age: inability to act due to crippling inertia.”

Thlunroolt’s eyelids cycled through three rapid nictations, followed by a twist of his mouth and a glance at Alnduul. “I see why you have taken a special interest in this one. Very well. Tomorrow should prove most interesting. Return before dawn. And remember: it would be best if both you and your shuttle remained unobserved.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

April, 2124

Rooaioo’q, BD +66 582

The Olsloov’s small, sleek shuttle dropped beneath the buffeting of the upper atmosphere. Riordan turned to Alnduul, his sole companion in the vehicle. “How do I know this isn’t another trip into virtuality?”

“Because I would have informed you in advance.”

“You mean, the way you did at Zhal Prime Second-Five?”

Alnduul’s mouth flattened closer to his face. “I once again ask your forgiveness, but, as I explained, that was an experiential necessity.”

“And the lack of details about what we’re doing today: is that also an ‘experiential necessity’?”

The Dornaani was silent for several seconds before answering. “You are familiar with experimental principle of the observer effect?”

“Of course; the presence and knowledge of the experimenter can change the outcome of the experiment.”

Alnduul’s eyes closed and opened in slow affirmation. “What we will attempt today requires that you have no advance knowledge of the process or its objective.” Alnduul peered into the holosphere, confirmed that the shuttle was following the green-highlighted path down toward the landing pad. “We shall be arriving soon.”

Riordan glanced at the terrain in the plot: he saw the Breeding Pool scroll rapidly out of sight behind them. “Looks like we’re heading away from civilization.”

Alnduul’s mouth twisted slightly. “If I understand the subtextual question underlying that statement, then yes: our destination is a secret facility.”

Riordan nodded and leaned back in his acceleration couch. Most of what Alnduul had shared about today’s “activity” concerned what it did not entail. It posed no physical danger. It did not require any physical effort. It did not violate any laws. It would not take more than an hour. It would not require that Riordan reveal anything about himself that he considered private.

The one thing that Alnduul did explain was that it would involve a very brief, and very limited, pseudo-virtuality scenario: nothing immersive, nothing that would trick Caine’s brain or sense organs into believing he was having a genuine physical experience. Which hadn’t sounded as reassuring as the Dornaani had probably intended it to.

In the holosphere, a margin of clear ground between the edge of a forest and a razor-back ridge of naked stone was rushing up at them. Either Alnduul was one hell of a hotshot pilot or the semi-autonomous guidance system made him look like one: despite the precipitous plummet toward ground, the last ten seconds of counter-boosting were so perfectly executed that there was no discernible bump when they landed.

As Riordan followed Alnduul out the dilating hatchway, he saw that the piloting artistry had included a last-moment pulse of sideways thrust which deposited the shuttle beneath the overhanging canopy of the forest. Orbital detection was pretty much precluded.

Riordan followed the unusually taciturn Dornaani across a sward of sponge moss toward the grey, saw-toothed escarpment. Riordan glanced at the sky, then around at the horizon: no sign of habitation, that anyone else had ever set foot on this world. “So is this a black box operation?”

It took Alnduul a moment to recognize that term. “This is neither an official facility, nor is it clandestine or military in nature. So I do not think that the expression ‘black box’ applies.”

“So: a private secret lab.”