Marque of Caine – Snippet 42

Chapter Twenty-Eight

May, 2124

Glamqoozht, BD+80 238

Five days later, after Caine and Alnduul met the escort sent by Nlastanl, they emerged from the interface terminal into yet another perfect day on Glamqoozht.

But only briefly: the junior facilitator who had overseen their processing followed them out of the building. “Senior Mentor Alnduul. My apologies, but there is an inconsistency in the registry data for your shuttle. We require your assistance.”

“And I am required to meet with twelve Senior and Regional Arbiters. Regrettably, I cannot comply at this time.”

“With respect, we took the liberty of contacting your meeting’s organizers to inquire when you could comply. He indicated that you may do so now.”

Caine shrugged, turned to reenter the terminal with Alnduul.

The junior facilitator waved one hand to the side. “You may still accompany your escort to the meeting, Mister Riordan. The Senior Mentor will join you shortly.”

The escort gestured toward the slideway. “We should depart.”

Riordan glanced at Alnduul, watching for any sign of misgiving, but saw none: just resignation to the vagaries of bureaucracy. Caine followed his escort.

Riordan found his second ride on the slideway surprisingly dull. The sights and sounds were unchanged. Even a closer study of the local architecture did not reveal anything new. Every structure was a variation on one of three themes: disk-topped towers, hemispheres, or low mesas of alabaster and glass that resembled immense bunkers raised to an art form. The walkway was even less populated, and there was no sign of any more autonomous pets drawn from the Dornaani’s genetic bestiary of both extant and extinct creatures. Caine’s attempt to engage his escort in conversation met with polite monosyllabic responses.

Until, that is, they neared the concourse. Riordan’s escort gestured to the right: the path that would bring him to the same broom closet. “I have been informed that you are quite familiar with the route from here. I must complete another errand for the Arbiters.” He moved toward the smaller, central median of transfer disks that circulated between the two lanes of the slideway.

Riordan called after his escort. “So I can just go to the building and–?”

“You are expected,” he interrupted. “Enlightenment unto you.” And then he was on one of the disks, heading across to the other lane.

Riordan shook his head. I’m just lucky they don’t make me use the servant’s entrance. He moved to the other side of the slideway, stepped on to a waiting disk and was rapidly conveyed to the right-hand concourse.

Stepping off, he set out for the tall tower to the left, and was rewarded by the sight of one of the strange quasi-reptiles he had seen on his first visit. However, this one was alone, and apparently in a hurry: its legs did not cycle swiftly, but they were so long that each stride covered a startling amount of ground. Riordan slowed to watch, realized he was in the creature’s path, stepped aside. The creature altered course slightly.

In his direction. And it accelerated.

Riordan began backing away. For an instant, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing: the creature couldn’t be charging him, not here in the epicenter of bloodless Dornaani bureaucracy and intellectual aloofness. A tame creature suddenly gone wild, no warders in sight, endangering everyone–?

Except it isn’t after everyone, Riordan noticed as he turned to run. A Dornaani exiting the tower had halted abruptly, shocked into motionlessness by the creature’s onslaught, only to watch the reptilian tent-pole legs go around, over and past her. No, Riordan realized, this creature isn’t on the loose. It’s after me.

Sprinting, Riordan didn’t bother to sort the tactical observation that hit his consciousness as a single wave: I’m alone. It’s faster. It knows this city. I have no weapons or comm device. The only advantage he might have over the pursuing creature was agility, particularly the ability to maneuver in tighter spaces and change directions rapidly.

He gauged his surroundings. His sprint would not bring him to the slideway ahead of the creature, and even if it did, that didn’t guarantee his survival. Although the disks were made for bipeds, the creature would be able to run alongside the slideway. And judging from the length of its clawed arms–

Riordan swerved across the concourse, dodged into a narrow passage between two small domes. Behind, the creature’s claws clacked and clicked as, skittering, it changed direction to follow.

Before it could enter that narrow passage, Riordan scanned for and found an even narrower alley. It was cluttered by low, box-like protrusions rising up from the ground: were they seats, environmental subsystems, maybe weird art forms? Caine couldn’t tell and didn’t care: he slipped sideways between the first two protrusions, hoped he’d be out of the alley before the creature reached the first passage.

No such luck. Within moments, the alien animal was already speed-stilting into the alley. But in that constricted space of the alley, Riordan was able to widen the gap: he sprinted hard, leaping over the protrusions as he headed for its other end. He didn’t take the time to look, but the awkward scratching and scraping sounds behind him seemed to confirm that these tight quarters were not congenial to the creature’s spindly legs. Caine raced around the far corner of the alley–

And almost split his head open, diving aside at the last moment to avoid–what? A dangling steel weather vane? Riordan caught himself on a post to keep from falling, discovered himself in a forest of metal tubes, glass ribbons, and fibrous arcs of–maybe–wood and coral. Disoriented, he pushed his way through the chaotic jungle, realizing that he was in the middle of a soaring synthesis of kinetic sculptures and primitive wind chimes. As he broke free of the last hanging obstacles, a still-rising cacophony marked his path for the creature that came skittering out of the alley.

Riordan’s first impulse was to continue running along this smaller concourse, but he steeled himself against that panicked reflex. You can’t make a plan if you don’t have information. So he spared a fraction of a second to take a mental snap-shot of his surroundings.

Straight ahead, after fifty meters and two more kinetic sculpture-chimes, the concourse terminated in a dead-end square. It was more trafficked than the larger concourse and had more buildings facing on it. Which meant multiple doors. And one of the closest doors was conventional, manual: the entry to an almost primitive hut. It was not too different from the ones he’d seen on Rooaioo’q. A historical recreation, maybe? He sprinted towards it.

Still, he wouldn’t have reached its safety in time if a Dornaani had not exited that door just as Riordan came within arm’s reach of it. Caine raced in past the startled pedestrian who, once again, obstructed the animal’s pursuit.

Riordan spun, slammed the door shut, braced his back against it, looked for a lock. It had two. One was a cleverly concealed magnetic lock used to secure the building. The other was a simple, ancient, and functional door bar.

Riordan reached over, tipped the bar; it fell into its bracket with a solid clunk. Panting, he studied the room: it was a museum display of prehistoric Dornaani life. The thatch-and-palisade walls were lined with nets, gaff poles, earthenware containers, short clubs for stunning or killing catch–

Silence. No hint of movement either inside or outside the pseudo-hut. Was the creature lying in wait? Was it seeking another point of ingress? Had it given up?

Riordan was beginning to debate whether he should risk taking a peek outside when there was a firm knock on the door. “Caine Riordan?” It was the voice of his escort.

“Yes?” Riordan kept himself propped firmly against the door.

“Please come with me.”

“Are you aware that one of your bioproxies just chased me through the streets? Would have killed me?”

“I am aware of the chase. However, it would not have killed you. Please: come with me or we shall be late.”