Marque of Caine – Snippet 34

Alnduul had reached the craggy stone face. “That might be a closer analog,” he agreed, just before he stepped forward, shifted quickly to the right. And disappeared.

“Do not be alarmed,” his voice assured. “The surrounding stone is cut to effect what you would call a trompe-l-oeil. What appears to be a dark vein of rock in the shadow of the closest outcropping is in fact a small, sideways passage.”

Riordan followed the Dornaani’s voice, almost thumped his head into the ceiling.

“Caution. And apologies: the passage was not designed with humans in mind. Step sideways.”

Caine did and suddenly, as if he was stepping out of a magical zone of darkness, lights swam up out of nothingness. Alnduul was standing directly in front of him.

“What–how do you do that?”

“You may recall that your sensors have difficulty detecting our ships, even when they are only one quarter of a light second distant.”

Riordan nodded, saw a natural passage winding away, deeper into the rock. “We dubbed it comboflage, since whatever you’ve got evidently manipulates both infrared and visible light.”

“Which you, personally, hypothesized as being related to our hulls’ ability to absorb light, even from weaponized lasers.”

Riordan frowned. “Yes, but I never told you about that.”

Alnduul ignored Riordan’s caveat. “Both your theories are correct. A grid of endophotic nanoparticles has been embedded in the surfaces behind you. Collectively, they absorb and redirect approximately ninety percent of the light that enters that space. The remaining visible light is converted into infrared emissions.”

“But that means–” Riordan stopped: there was no way to articulate all of what that really meant, and how much more it implied. “So you can convert energy from different part of the electromagnetic spectrum back and forth pretty easily. And you put this here so that no light would leak out. But why not just put in a door?”

Alnduul’s eyelids drooped slightly. “Our densitometers are far more sensitive than yours, even at orbital ranges. A door would be detected as a manufactured feature in what is otherwise a natural passage. Please follow me.”

*     *     *

After winding through natural caves, they arrived at a chasm. A stony chin jutting out over the lightless abyss proved to be an open elevator platform that descended with marked swiftness.

Alnduul’s voice was ghostly in the rushing dark. “Soon, we will be at a depth where orbital densitometers cannot reliably penetrate. Beyond that, we shall be essentially undiscoverable.”

“And you are showing me all this because . . . ?”

“Because there is no other way to bring you to the facility. But also, I hope to illustrate that those of us Custodians who are more proactive have always seen parallels between our modus operandi and IRIS’s. At least, IRIS as it existed under Nolan Corcoran, and then, briefly under Richard Downing.”

“Yes, well: that epoch is well and truly over.”

“And yet, you may be certain that a new star chamber shall emerge. It always does, among humans.”

The ledge-elevator started to decelerate. “Dornaani don’t have the same problems?”

“We do, but not with the same intensity or frequency. We are far less driven by rank, status, or class.”

Riordan cocked an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I see the connection between the two.”

Alnduul joined the index fingers of either hand. “Unlike your pyramidal paradigm of class distinction, our social structure resembles a web. Leadership does not appeal so greatly nor so widely among us. Conversely, there is less tolerance for activities that are not sanctioned by cultural habit or explicitly approved by the Collective.” The lift drifted to a halt. Alnduul walked forward into a long, smooth corridor that was illuminated, but had no visible lights.

Riordan followed at a distance. “So the Collective doesn’t approve of secret organizations or activities. Sounds like I’m risking expulsion just by being here?”

Alnduul stopped, folded his long, thin hands. “Today’s activity is not prohibited. And I am not pursuing it in cooperation with any other Dornaani except Thlunroolt.”

Riordan looked around at Alnduul’s almost archetypal secret hideout. “Then why all this?”

“Just because today’s activities are not prohibited does not mean that I welcome scrutiny. You have a saying: to ‘fly under the radar’? That is what I am doing.”

Riordan looked up into the soaring darkness. “You most certainly are.”

*     *     *

After all the not-quite-skullduggery of their journey, Alnduul’s hidden facility was distinctly anti-climactic: another smooth-cornered room with few appointments.

Thlunroolt was already there, sitting behind a ubiquitous crescent-shaped desk and control center. He raised a hand, let his fingers trail through the air like loosely jointed chopsticks. “Welcome, Caine Riordan. I am glad you sustained your resolve to participate.”

Caine smiled. “Well, it’s not like I really know what I’ve resolved to do.”

But Thlunroolt’s attention had–conveniently? pointedly?–returned to the controls before him.

Alnduul led Riordan to a human chair positioned in front of an equally human desk. There was a streamlined HUD unit on it, sized for a human head. Riordan picked it up, turned a questioning look at Alnduul.

“Yes. Please put it on.”

Riordan ensured it fit snugly. “Now what?”

“Can you see the chair?”

Riordan looked down. “Yes. But nothing else. Not even my own feet.”

“That is as it should be. The rest of the scene will fade in when we begin. For now, be seated and relax.”

“It would be easier to relax if I know what I’m expected to do.”

“I would like you to conduct an interview.”

“Of you?”

“No. We are simply asking you to use the skills you acquired as a defense journalist, and to ask the questions which we have prepared for you.”

“You know I only did this a few times, right? I mostly did field research, spoke to a few people off camera, read a lot of briefs, wrote up my analysis.”

“I am aware. Your skills and natural aptitudes are more than adequate for today’s activity.”

Damn, I travel fifty light years to reprise the gig I hated the most? That’s fate for you. “When do we start?”


The HUD functioned similarly to old-fashioned VR goggles. The cream-nothingness of the null-image became a little more grainy, then shapes started emerging from it: a tan leather recliner, a hazy window, white drapes rippling in a breeze too light to feel, a hint of clear blue sky beyond. It wasn’t virtuality, not even close. It was a minimalist dreamscape, softened by a layer of gauze. But no interview subject.

“Alnduul, where’s the–?”

“Please! Do not speak, except to the subject. That is imperative.”

Yeah, but there’s nosubject. So who do I–?

And then there was a hazy figure in the recliner: a tall man, but his clothes were a bit baggy, as if he had lost weight since first wearing them. So: old or possibly infirm. The resolution of the image swam and then suddenly sharpened.

Caine gasped.

“Hello,” said the face of Nolan Corcoran.

Chapter Twenty-Three

April, 2124

Rooaioo’q, BD +66 582

Riordan could hardly think through the surprise. Not until the image of Corcoran smiled one of his avuncular smiles–my God, it’s just like him!–and urged, “You can start any time you like.”

Riordan swallowed; his throat felt like old leather rubbing across older leather. He coughed, glanced down, discovered a virtual data slate on a virtual table. Okay, I’ve got a script. That will help. “It’s quite an honor to interview you, Admiral Corcoran. Thanks for agreeing to meet with me.”

Corcoran smiled, his salt-and-pepper eyebrows crinkling. “My pleasure. Where would you like to start?”