Marque of Caine – Snippet 41

Chapter Twenty-Seven

May, 2124

Glamqoozht, BD+80 238

Nlastanl was the first to realize that Riordan really did intend to remain silent. The Senior Arbiter raised a finger to still disapproving murmurs. “Perhaps there is a middle course, Caine Riordan.”

So, Nlastanl either has less disdain for humans or less resolve. “I’m listening.”

“Let us formally agree to an exchange of information. We shall answer your concerns regarding Elena Corcoran. In return, you will share what you know regarding the two locations we requested.”

Sure: I’ll be happy to share the full measure of my ignorance, then. “If I can verify your claims regarding Elena, I agree.”

Nlastanl looked around the table. Most of his colleagues responded with diffident gestures. His eyes returned to Caine’s. “As you are aware, it was the Custodians’ Earth Oversight Group that took Elena Corcoran into their care. However, they are trained for social and political interaction, and so, lacked the skill to address major medical complications in a human.”

“Accordingly, Elena Corcoran was placed under the supervision of the Collective’s most accomplished specialists. However, inasmuch as expertise in human medicine is an esoteric rarity, a year elapsed before they could be gathered and then arrive at a consensus regarding treatment: a phased therapy of reconstructive nanytes. The objective was to repair enough of her bodily damage so that she would survive full reanimation, the necessary precursor to surgery.”

“And did that work?”

Nlastanl seemed genuinely regretful. “Not entirely. Before her body temperature could be elevated to the surgical minimum, her damaged organs began to fail. Given that we are constrained to using our shortest-lived medical nanytes, the speed of her decline was greater than the speed at which they were repairing her.”

“Then why didn’t you use, well, longer-duration nanytes?”

Nlastanl glanced at Heethoo, who took up the explanation. “Long-duration nanytes are contraindicated when the patient is receiving certain forms of brain stimulation.”

Riordan felt his stomach harden, more because of Heethoo’s evasive tone than her words. “What kind of brain stimulation?”

“Elena Corcoran’s partial reanimation presented our experts with a conundrum. Once her organs began to function, it necessarily meant that her brain became active. This presented both a challenge and an opportunity.

“The challenge was that, left without mental stimulation, she could slip into a coma. Consequently, in order to protect her mental functions, her brain was stimulated through connection to virtuality. That had to continue, even though she never became a viable surgical candidate.”

A chill began creeping along Riordan’s limbs. “You mentioned that her connection to virtuality presented an opportunity, as well as a challenge?”

Heethoo’s eyes were wide as she raised three affirming fingers. “Further research suggested that if her brain received even more intense stimulation, her body’s own healing responses might increase. If that occurred, it was reasonable to hope that the short-duration nanytes would begin to show net gains. Theoretically, virtuality itself could stimulate a self-amplifying recovery trend that would ultimately free her from requiring brain stimulation, and so, enable the application of long-duration nanytes.”

“And did that work?”

Heethoo glanced at Nlastanl and Glayaazh. “We have no way of knowing.”

Riordan blinked. “I don’t understand.”

Glayaazh extended her fingers weakly in Caine’s direction: supplication, sympathy, a request for patience? “We are still attempting to locate her.”

“Locate her?” Caine discovered that he had shouted and was on his feet. “You mean, you lost her?”

Glayaazh kept her fingers stretched toward him. “When a more advanced and immersive form of virtuality was prescribed, her care was transferred once again. However, the experts capable of applying virtuality to such an atypical situation were widely scattered. They are also highly individualistic, frequently uncooperative, and often reclusive.”

Good God. Elena, hovering in the twilight between life and death, was being cared for by the Dornaani equivalent of cellar-dwelling computer addicts. Maybe hackers. Riordan pushed back against the tumult of horrors. One nightmare at a time: “So you did lose her. How?”

Nlastanl answered. “We cannot answer that because we have been unable to determine who lost her. As Senior Arbiter Heethoo intimated, the medical experts were no longer required on site. They left to attend to other responsibilities.”

Riordan snapped forward. “Bullshit. They got bored. She was just an inert human, so they drifted off to more interesting pursuits. Is that about the size of it?”

Nlastanl’s mouth became a retracted, brittle crease: whether it signaled annoyance at Caine’s profane bluntness, chagrin over the situation, or both, Riordan couldn’t tell and didn’t much care. “Your summary lacks nuance but is fundamentally correct. When Elena Corcoran was to be turned over to the virtuality experts, the medical specialists were no longer present, and the mind-machine interface specialists had not agreed upon a treatment protocol. Consequently, no one had formal responsibility for her case when it came time to process her transfer.”

Riordan was so stunned it took him a moment to find words. “So you’re telling me she just vanished from whatever facility she was in? Without a trace?” Riordan felt as though he was coming out of his own body, was unsure what he might do or say next.

Caine felt Alnduul’s thin, almost frail hand on his arm. He realized it might be the first time he had ever been touched by a Dornaani. Some part of his mind registered that as unusually significant, but right now the only thing that mattered was that these bastards had lost Elena. They hadn’t cared enough about her to even–

Alnduul stood. “Answer Caine Riordan’s questions. You owe him that. And a great deal more.”

“Do not take that tone of remonstrance with us, Alnduul,” Suvtrush replied in a dangerously calm voice.

“Then cease acting in a fashion that warrants it,” Alnduul shot back waspishly. “Did you pick up the trail of Elena Corcoran’s transfer or not?”

Nlastanl motioned for Suvtrush to remain silent. “A lengthy investigation discovered that her transfer was not effected by an official vessel, nor by a subsidized transport contracted for that purpose. Rather, she was relocated by an independent carrier.”

Suddenly, all the Dornaani were looking somewhere– anywhere–other than in Caine’s direction. Riordan, who had fought back up through the haze of barely suppressed physical rage, glanced at Alnduul. “What does that mean?”

“It means,” Alnduul said slowly, “that Elena Corcoran’s transfer was entrusted to a loji ship that is not subsidized by the Collective. These vessels are independently operated, serving outlying systems and individuals who require extraordinary . . . discretion.”

Riordan’s mouth sagged open. “You mean they gave her to smugglers?”

Suvtrush swung a finger through the air. “Sadly, many loji independents have been convicted of far worse crimes than that. They are but one drop in a rising tide that threatens to flood our weir.”

Nlastanl silenced his colleague with a sharp, sideways sweep of splayed fingers. “Our investigators eventually found the ship that effected the first leg of Elena Corcoran’s transfer.”

“The first leg?”

“Yes. Since independent carriers do not maintain regular routes, your mate’s life support module was off-loaded as open contract freight at a high port. From there, another independent carried it part of the way to its ultimate destination.”

“Which is?”

“We are still awaiting that information.”

Alnduul’s neck was quivering. “How much time has elapsed since the last known transfer of Elena Corcoran’s medical module?”

Nlastanl did not meet his eyes. “Slightly over two years.”

“And in which system did the transfer take place?”

Suvtrush struck downward with rigid fingers. “The human wished to ascertain the physical condition of his mate. This has been provided to the best of our knowledge. He needs no additional data, since he has no means to travel the Collective in search of her.”

“No,” agreed Alnduul, “but I do.”

Riordan glanced at his friend, ready to wave him off. Supporting an “adversarial” human brought too much risk. But then Caine remembered Elena’s eyes, and all he could do was nod his thanks.

The other Dornaani were staring at Alnduul. Nlastanl gestured toward the ceiling with one finger. “We have exceeded the time allotted. At our next meeting, Caine Riordan, I hope you will be willing to exchange the location of the Lost Soldiers and the Ktoran cryopods for the last known movements of Elena Corcoran’s medical cryopod.”

He stood. “We are finished. We shall resume in two days. Perhaps three. Enlightenment unto you.”