Marque of Caine – Snippet 37

Chapter Twenty-Five

April, 2124

Rooaioo’q, BD +66 582

When Riordan re-entered the lab, Thlunroolt was once again seated behind the crescent table. His tone was less jocular. “My regrets for the delay, Caine Riordan. It took us four days alone to calibrate where you may safely reenter the simulation.”

Riordan nodded. And one more for getting everything ready. Although, according to Alnduul, who was reviewing a hologram of the amended script, they would not have been able to leave, anyway. Word had arrived from the regional Capitol to stay where they were, for now. Reason: unknown.

Riordan adjusted the HUD. “Okay, I’m ready.” After an interval of two seconds, the same fragmentary room faded in from the cream background. A moment later, Nolan was back in the chair.

That was Caine’s cue. “You’ve frequently been accused of using information control and influence peddling to manipulate organizations, corporations, governments, and to maintain one of the longest conspiracies on record: suppressing proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. What’s your verdict upon yourself: guilty or not guilty?”

The Corcoran simulacrum seemed disoriented for a moment, but quickly became both more focused and more animated. “Although I’d contest the term ‘conspiracy,’ I’d have to say ‘guilty as charged.’ However, some misdeeds are not well understood, or judged, without context.

“Stark violations of basic laws and conscience, such as the murder-sprees of sociopaths, can be judged summarily. But at the other end of the spectrum are actions which occur in the grey of a perpetual ethical and moral twilight.” The simulacrum shook its head. “That’s where almost all covert operations are conducted. Ultimately, it is history that sits in judgment. And perhaps that is best. Those who occupy a more distant vantage point upon the unspooling timeline often see the total context of a deed more clearly than those who witnessed it first-hand.”

Had Riordan been conducting an actual interview, he might have remarked that Corcoran’s response was, in fact, a wonderfully poetic and circuitous non-answer. Instead, his lines were: “Are you suggesting that your own deeds will be better understood, and perhaps more widely praised, with the passage of time?”

Corcoran shrugged. “I’d like to think so. But I’m not sure that the complete story of our preparation for first contact will ever–or should ever–be told.”

“Because people can’t handle the truth?”

“No: because some truths are so profoundly convoluted and byzantine that there’s no way to present them both concisely and comprehensively. Too much simplification and the context is lost. But too much detail and people get weary of all the onion-layers that have to be peeled away to show the core reasons for the decisions made, the actions taken.”

All true. Also an unimpeachable rationalization. “How would you respond to critics who claim that kind of appeal to ‘undisclosable contexts’ is just a re-directing sophistry? Consider this an open platform, with posterity itself as your audience.”

Corcoran–damn: it’s hard to remember it’s not really him–smiled. “Okay, then: let’s drop the elevated rhetoric and get down to brass tacks.

“Try to put yourself in this scenario: it’s the day you learn what the Doomsday Rock really is. Someone, or some force, is threatening everything that you know and love, all the history that led to it, and all the generations that will come after. Do you carry on as before, decide not to take extraordinary measures in response to that extraordinary threat? Some call that ‘moral transcendence’: to choose not to contemplate responses of questionable morality, to just let the cosmos unfold as it will.

“But even the Buddhists maintain that there are limits to the pursuit of an unsullied moral existence. To paraphrase their perspective, to choose to do nothing is still a choice. And every choice is an action. Which confront us with this quandary:

“The universe may be maddeningly indifferent, but we humans must still choose our moral posture within it. Do we choose to act in pure self-interest, like a voracious wolf? Do we choose not to act at all, like rabbits that go limp under the wolf’s paws? Or do we choose to act both for ourselves and others, like a wolfhound, ever ready to drive off the wolf?

“I’d like to say I chose the latter course because of some transcendent, enlightened world view. But that’s not my reason, any more than it was the reason for creating IRIS. I–we–just wanted to give our flawed, wonderful planet a fighting chance. I had seen the imprint of the wolf’s teeth sunk deep into the surface of the Doomsday Rock and, damn it, I was not going to go down without a fight.

“I believe most human beings feel the same way when they think about their family, their friends, their unborn grandchildren. You don’t just lie down and give up. You take the fight to the wolves just as hard and as long as you can. And you do so in the belief that someone will carry on the fight when you fall.” He locked his eyes on Caine’s. “All enduring hope springs from that belief. Because without it, you lack the will to persevere. And if you do not persevere, you cannot prevail.”

The simulacrum hung its head. “That said, we made mistakes. Almost daily, we found ourselves on the horns of a dilemma that illustrated why no fight, and certainly no killing, is ever an unalloyed moral good. The best you can say is that sometimes it’s necessary, if it’s the only way to drive off the wolf.”

“That sounds like a heavy load of guilt to carry.”

“It is. Every battlefield and blood-stained alley should leave us with memories and uncertainties that we can’t just dismiss. That is the price moral culpability exacts, and we must not shirk it. Otherwise, we become wolves ourselves.”

Suddenly, Caine missed the real Nolan very intensely. “It sounds like you’ve given this a lot of thought.”

Corcoran smiled. “You should know; you wrote the book. So to speak.” Without warning, the simulacrum started, looked around, confused but also surprised. For a moment, the virtual world became grainy, static-ridden.

The virtual dataslate at the bottom of Riordan’s HUD blanked, then re-illuminated in bold red letters: “REDIRECT THE CONVERSATION.”

What the hell–?

The simulacrum stared around as if it had blacked out momentarily. “I–I’m sorry, I seem to have lost the thread of our conversation. What were you asking?”

Riordan’s palms had become clammy. “Actually, we were just wrapping up. Maybe you got a little distracted, had a memory lapse.”

The simulacrum seemed unable to focus. “Yes, maybe I did have a lapse . . . but I also seem to remember things. Things that didn’t happen. I seem to know you . . . but I don’t. Well, I mean I recognize you, but . . .  How did we meet, again? And where are we–?”

The room almost greyed out. The simulacrum started violently.

Riordan kept his reaction honest but muted. “Are you feeling well, Admiral Corcoran?”

The simulacrum squinted as the room returned to its normal appearance. “I’m feeling disoriented. Like I’m not quite myself. Literally.” He laughed weakly, looked up–and, wide-eyed, stared. “Caine?”

Riordan had no idea how to respond: there was no script for this. So he did the only thing he could do honestly: treat the simulacrum just as if it was the real Corcoran. “Yes, Nolan: it’s me.”

“It’s good . . . good to see you. So good to . . .” Corcoran’s eyes grew shiny. “I’m sorry, Caine. I’m so, so–“

“There’s no reason for apologies,” It was both touching and terrible seeing Nolan Corcoran on the verge of tears, but Riordan followed his instinct: to keep the simulacrum talking, interacting. “It’s good to have you back.”

“It’s good to be back . . . but where?” The simulacrum looked around. Initial surprise gave way to increasing focus and wariness. “Caine, your house: it’s strange.”

“It’s not my house, Nolan.”

“No? So you . . . do you see it, too?” He gestured at the hazy window, drapes, sky.

Riordan watched Nolan’s eyes, understood. “The lack of detail? Yes.”

“So what I’m seeing . . . isn’t really there?”

“Not exactly.”

“That’s a pretty lousy answer, Caine.” Corcoran grinned, but not very convincingly. Then, his brow straightened and his voice became relaxed, casual. Too casual. “So Caine, how did you find out that Elena’s favorite flowers are orchids?”

“But,”–Riordan shook his head–“they’re not.”

“Sure they are. You left one outside our door. Back on Luna.”

Ah: a test. “No, Nolan. I left Elena a single red rose. With a bottle of Chateau-neuf-de-Pape. I guess you found both in the paper bag?”

Corcoran’s answering smile rapidly changed from relieved to cautious. “Are we alone here . . . wherever ‘here’ is?”


Nolan was too intelligent to believe that there was any advantage to remaining circumspect. “Who’s eavesdropping on us, then?”