Marque of Caine – Snippet 43

*      *     *

“So it was a unanimous decision to send that monster after me?”

“It was,” Nlastanl affirmed. “We determined to send the creature–a pess*kss–to intercept you after learning that your cognitive acuity would be enhanced if your body experienced the biochemical cascade that your physicians call the ‘fight-or-flight’ response–“


“–which would enable slightly longer conversations.”

Alnduul, who had arrived less than a minute after Riordan, surveyed the other Dornaani faces in the room. “So it seems that you are resolved to not only verbally attack my friend in this chamber, but to physically attack him before he reaches it.” Riordan had never heard Alnduul adopt a sarcastic tone before.

“Not invariably,” Suvtrush clarified with widened eyes. “In order to initiate and sustain the flight-fight cascade, the human must not know when and where such an incident might occur. And so, to deny him both assistance and advanced warning, you are hereby instructed not to accompany him on his subsequent visits.”

Alnduul’s eyes seemed to quiver in their large sockets. “You cannot supersede my orders to accompany our guest, to ensure his safety.”

“We have voted, as a body, to do just that. And with four Senior Arbiters in attendance, that confers the necessary authority to suspend your orders.”

“Does it? Those orders were issued unanimously by the Senior Assembly. So have the four Senior Arbiter’s now present both forgotten their own dictate and that it would take a majority vote to overturn it?”

Suvtrush trailed a pair of unconcerned fingers through the air. “Ultimately, your legal cavils are irrelevant. The human will not be at risk. And further commentary on this resolution is no longer welcome or permitted, Alnduul.”

Riordan scanned the alien faces, assessed the value of an aggressive bluff. He rose, waited until the room was silent. “I will not cooperate under these conditions.”

Suvtrush’s fingers trailed languidly. “That is your affair. We are resolved.”

Heethoo touched her index fingers together. “We must avoid such an impasse. I welcome any suggestion that might assist us in ameliorating the contentious trend of our discussions.”

Riordan nodded. “I have a suggestion. I suggest you take a day to reconsider excluding Alnduul from my visits. And while you’re at it, consider the benefits to be gained from deciding to treat me as an equal. Then, I might have something to say about the Lost Soldiers and their cryocells. Otherwise, we’re done. And I’ll be sure to report my treatment to the interested parties back on Earth.”

Alnduul led the way out of the broom closet. “I do not think they will relent.”

“Nor do I,” Riordan answered with a tight nod. “But I have a plan.”

*     *     *

“Be careful,” warned Alnduul early the next day, staring through the interface terminal’s transparent walls at the unchanging skyline of Glamqoozht.

“I will,” Riordan assured him, then exited the terminal. Because his hands were still shaking, he put them in his pockets. Hopefully the double-dose of epinephrine would prove sufficient. But had Caine’s traveling medical locker included a dose of combat drug, he would have been sorely tempted to use it, too. He had foresworn such substances on general principles, but today, he’d need every edge he could get.

As soon as Riordan trotted off the slideway and scanned the concourse, he saw that the Dornaani had not relented in their promise of a threat before every meeting. A hundred meters up the concourse, a pair of the pseudo-ungulate quadrupeds he’d seen the last time were meandering toward him. This time, he noticed the peculiar stiffness in their posture and movements to which he’d been blind when the pess*kss attacked him, but had recalled afterward. Probably a consequence of being under direct and unwelcome control. And whereas the tentacular extensions of their sensory clusters had originally bobbed and roved lazily, those prehensile members were now stretched out into erect fans.

Riordan had done his homework: when this creature, a yoomdai, was alarmed or defending its territory, its sensory polyps and tendrils extended into a living radar dish that not only conferred a more focused version of a bat’s sonar, but had secondary sensitivities across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Normally it was a shy herbivore that eluded its prey not only by virtue of its speed, but by its ability to change both the microscopic properties and the shape of its leg-end stumps.

The data in Olsloov‘s brief computer entry listed one other tantalizing datum about the yoomdai‘s world of origin, the other worlds on which it might be encountered, and the last confirmed sightings: all were listed as “unknown.” Another mystery which Alnduul had demurred answering until “later”.

Riordan walked briskly toward the same passage he’d used to exit the concourse during the last attack. The two yoomdai, one of which was almost the size of a caribou, either didn’t immediately detect his change in speed or direction, or had not yet been informed that he was their target. But after three seconds, the larger one’s radar dish of trembling tendrils swung sharply in Riordan’s direction, collapsing into a tight cone: probably getting better target resolution.

Caine ran for the mouth of the passage. The two yoomdai swerved after him.

By the time Caine reached the still narrower alley littered with boxlike protrusions, he was surprised to see that, despite his head start, the yoomdai were already closer than the pess*kss had been. They seemed to fly along the ground, incredibly sure of foot and pushing mightily into each bound as their feet kept altering to achieve optimal traction.

His heart pounding out hard, adrenal thumps, Riordan charged out of the alley and straight into the first mobile’s hanging garden of metal, glass, coral, and wood. He swung his arms as he went through it; the resulting clangor battered his ears. Emerging from the far side, he swerved toward the hut and the many tools–which was to say weapons–he knew to be inside.

The yoomdai emerged from the alley mouth, each leap a long, flying stretch–but then recoiled, averting their convulsively contracting sensor-fans from the cacophony produced by the madly swinging pieces of the sculpture.

Caine felt a sharp pulse of satisfaction: hurt and blinded all at once. He reached the hut, grabbed the door handle, and yanked.

And almost dislocated his shoulder. It was not just shut; it was locked.


Behind him, the yoomdai began widening their sensor clusters: probably to reduce the concentration of collected sound. They started moving uncertainly forward, giving the wind chimes from hell a wide berth.

Motionless, Caine watched them edge towards him, cautiously, hesitantly. Probably relying on their infrared-sensitive polyps, now. They were still half-blind, but if he couldn’t find a weapon, or just something to swing at them–

Riordan glanced at the sculpture, at the fibrous cords that connected the wood chimes to its whirling armatures, and sprinted back towards it.

The yoomdai flinched, startled, but followed quickly, the smaller one in the lead.

Caine didn’t slow as he got to the structure: he leaped. Grabbing one of the wooden tubes while still in mid-air, he yanked down with both hands as he dropped back to the ground.

The fiber cord connecting the tube to the overhead armature strained down and against the direction of the armature’s spin. It grew taut, groaned, snapped.

Dragging the tube low along the ground, Riordan stumbled through a swaying insanity of other objects: having been yanked in yet another direction, their oscillations were now unpredictable, manic. He dodged a spinning wand of glass, ducked out past the rest of the erratic chimes, and, resisting the urge to run, moved quickly to the alley-facing side of the sculpture.

Sure enough, the freshly disoriented yoomdai were facing almost directly away from him, still scanning along his last known path: into the whirling pandemonium of tubes, bars, and slats.

Keeping a two-handed grasp on the tube, Riordan cocked it back over his right shoulder like an oversized baseball bat, and charged.

The smaller of the yoomdai was the first to detect either Caine’s movement or heat signature, even though it was further away than its larger mate. It spun to face him, its front feet widening, flattening, transmogrifying with alarming speed. The bigger one was just starting to turn–