Marque of Caine – Snippet 44

Guessing that its large body was highly resilient to blunt force blows, Caine aimed low. He swung the tube sharply, snapping his wrists over just before impact.

The tube split as it smashed into the large yoomdai’s left leg, just below its hock-analog. A surprisingly loud crack punctuated the creature’s staggering fall, but it did not make any other sound. Riordan swung the weakened tube around as quickly as his impact-numbed shoulders could roll.

But not in time. The smaller yoomdai, startlingly swift, was already in front of him, rising up on its hind legs, lashing out with–

Riordan had a brief impression of the new shape of its front feet–two small spades–right before they slashed at his abdomen.

*     *     *

The first words that Caine heard as he swam up out of unconsciousness were: “He is mad. Or suicidal. Or both.” The voice was Suvtrush’s.

Riordan kept his eyes closed, tried to assess if he was in pain, if any part of him was numb or missing, and–to the extent possible–determine if he was clear-headed. It seemed so, but . . .

Alnduul’s reply was quiet but sharp. “Do you not see that Caine Riordan is resolved to reject your attempts at inducing a flight-or-fight response? Which, by the way, would not produce the effects you seek. Nor would they persist beyond a few minutes.”

There was a long pause. Nlastanl’s voice asked in what, for a Dornaani, was a stern, almost arch, tone: “Laynshooz, is this true?”

“Our research was inconclusive on these points,” Laynshooz muttered.

“That is not possible. Our data on human physiology and pharmacokinetics are more detailed than their own.”

Riordan opened his eyes. “Of course,” he said, sitting up, “maybe it was just a simple oversight.” The Dornaani around him started. Despite a sharp pain in his abdomen, Caine continued: “On the other hand, maybe the oversight was intentional.” Nlastanl’s mouth opened . . . and then closed again as he stole an appraising glance at Laynshooz. Starting to wonder if your advisors have been telling you the truth about stimulating the poor, slow-witted human, Nlastanl? It’s about damn time.

The stabbing pain in Riordan’s abdomen had relented. “At any rate, I apologize for bleeding on your nice, clean concourse.” Riordan looked around: the curvature of the room was so pronounced that it seemed as though they were all inside an immense, sterile-white egg. Almost no equipment, not even monitors or an IV drip. Okay, if I’m doing that well, maybe I can startle them a little more.

Caine swung his legs over the side of the low platform upon which he had been lying. The five Dornaani shrank back, Heethoo emitting a chirrup of either distress or worry.

Alnduul, who was closest, murmured. “Movement may not be wise. Although the lacerations were shallow, they were only closed thirty minutes ago. The fusings may not be–“

“I’ll be fine,” Riordan assured him.

“And if you are not?” Nlastanl asked in alarmed disbelief.

“Then you’ll fix me. Again.” Riordan replied, suppressing a wince as he stood and discovered that, although he was wearing his own pants and boots, his shirt had been replaced by what looked like a silver dashiki. It shone a light blue wherever it bent or bunched.

Suvtrush’s two index fingers were stabbing toward the floor. “Your intransigence is unacceptable, human. You must comply with–“

“–with what?” Riordan stepped quickly toward Suvtrush, who stepped back with even greater alacrity. “Your ridiculous games?”

“Our . . . games?”

“Well, what do you call it? You choose when and where we meet. You choose what you’ll tell me and how long we’ll talk. You send creatures that almost kill me, even though you’ve ordered that I’m to be protected. Tell me: how is all that not a ridiculous game?”

“But,” objected Nlastanl, stepping between Riordan and Suvtrush, “you did not have to fight. You only had to flee.”

Riordan shook his head. “I guess that, living in this sanitized world, you’ve forgotten this basic lesson: if you want to stay free or stay alive, never play by your opponent’s rules. Particularly when your opponent is more powerful than you are. Do the unexpected: burn the treasury; turn on the pursuer; attack the attacker.”

“But your survival was never at risk.”

“Really? Then who failed to control the smaller yoomdai before it could do this?” Riordan patted his abdomen.

“We were surprised–“

“Which almost got me gutted. What will it be next time? A broken control module, a momentary glitch in the lascom? You’re kidding yourself if you think you can guarantee my safety. But it doesn’t matter one way or the other, because as long as you treat me like a lab rat, I’ll turn and bite. And I will keep doing that until I’m dead or I’m free. Your choice.”

The four Senior Arbiters exchanged long glances. Nlastanl turned back to Riordan, hands folded. “Given that your resolve in this matter could cause you further harm, we shall discontinue our attempts to induce compensatory cognitive stimulation. Now remain here quietly until we have summoned a conveyance for you.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

May, 2124

Glamqoozht, BD+80 238

Upon exiting the medical facility, Riordan and Alnduul were ushered into a waiting vehicle that rose on vertijets and sped toward a new tower than. Riordan glanced at his friend. “Change of venue?” Riordan asked.


During the forty-second trip, Riordan got a bird’s-eye view of the vast, circular bay, spotted a strange structure rising up out of the water two-thirds of the way to the horizon. It appeared to be a split tower of natural rock, a broad hole bored through the narrow gap separating the two halves. “What is that?”

Alnduul’s mouth retracted slightly. “A relic.”

“Yes, but from when? And what does it symbolize?”

“I do not know. I doubt anyone does.”

“You mean it dates back to before you established the Accord?”

“It might.”

The pilot advised them that they would soon disembark upon the tower’s roof and to take the elevator down one floor to the observation level.

Riordan smiled at Alnduul. “Sounds like we’re out of the basement, at least.”

Alnduul did not seem enthusiastic. “That is not necessarily a promising sign.”

*     *     *

And Alnduul might be right, Riordan thought when he entered the wedge-shaped room that looked out over the bay. Almost all the Dornaani were now physically present. They stared at him as he entered and sat.

Nlastanl raised his small chin. “We have met your preconditions, Caine Riordan. Now, where are the Lost Soldiers?”

Caine shook his head. “I made my cooperation contingent upon two conditions. You’ve answered as much as you can about Elena; I’ll take that on faith. But I told you I need to know why you want this information.”

Nlastanl waved a loose-fingered hand. “If the Ktor can be assured that the Collective knows the location of the Lost Soldiers, can verify they have no freedom of movement, and that their true identity has not been made public, the Sphere’s impetus toward a war footing is eliminated.”

Riordan shook his head. “Maybe. Or maybe the Ktor won’t settle for anything less than your revealing every detail. And given the contempt in which so many of you hold humans, why should I believe that you’d keep our secrets?”

Nlastanl folded his fingers together stiffly. “You have no grounds for fearing such a betrayal.”

“In fact,” Riordan interrupted, “I do.” He leaned forward. “You also had thousands of years and dozens of Convocations to figure out that the Ktor ‘cold environment tanks’ were a sham. You had advanced sensors which could show that their occupants were human. But you never bothered to investigate. Which beggars belief. Unless, that is, you decided not to investigate. So if you don’t keep faith with your own Accords, why the hell would you keep your word to me? Or anyone?”

The room had been fairly quiet before: it was suddenly as soundless as a tomb.

“The matter you raise,” Suvtrush murmured eventually, “is a unique exception that is best explained by a Custodial expert.”