Marque of Caine – Snippet 46

Riordan felt a vague chill creep down his spine. “What kind of effects?”

Nlastanl waved a hand. “That we cannot say. We know very little of them, and I am not permitted to share more than I already have. But be assured: these symbiopods constitute a greater peril to your race than the Ktorans.”

Riordan leaned back. If Nlastanl was telling the truth–and the other three Senior Arbiters had become equally somber–then this warranted separate consideration. “How is that you know what’s in a Ktoran cryo–er, symbiopod–and what it would do to us?”

“Because,” Heethoo explained softly, “it is mentioned in our histories. If they are what we suspect, we must find the symbiopods and remove them.”

Riordan leaned his forehead into his hand. “So these date from the same epoch as the ruins on Delta Pavonis Three?”

Glayaazh nodded. “And earlier than that. From a distant region of space.”

Caine’s chill intensified. “How distant?”

“We do not know. Beyond our farthest probes.”

“And how far have your probes gone?”

“We have explored every system up to fifty light years from the Accord’s borders. Other probes have been sent as far as three hundred and fifty light years beyond that.”

“And within that total radius of, eh, almost five hundred light years, has there ever been any sign of–?”

Suvtrush straightened all his fingers with an irritated snap. “Nlastanl, be cautious: the human may be simple, but he is crafty. He makes observations. We offer corrections. Those furnish the human with glimpses of the confidential data behind them.”

Nlastanl turned back toward Caine. “Are you attempting to manipulate us as Suvtrush suspects?”

Riordan shrugged. “I never ignore an opportunity to learn something new. But frankly, other than getting Elena back, I’m only interested in one type of information.”

“And what is that?”

“Finding out which of you might be willing to befriend humans, and which of you would never countenance it.”

“So, in short,” summarized Laynshooz, “you are trying to discern which of us might be as pliable, as corruptible, as Alnduul. Come: do you deny it? Do you not wish to recruit more like him: Dornaani who will take matters into their own hands to help Earth?”

Riordan shook his head. “I am not here trying to recruit anyone. But if Alnduul had not taken matters into his own hands, the invasion of Earth would have probably succeeded. Meaning you would have been faced with a sustained and direct violation of the Twenty-First Accord, which expressly forbids the invasion of a species’ homeworld. So you would have had to either fight a war to remove the occupiers or disband the Accord as a sham.

“Of course, the only reason Alnduul had to make those hard calls was because the Custodians failed to provide the support they promised at Convocation. Or was that the doing of the Collective Assembly, pressuring them to stand down while we were dying by the millions?”

Suvtrush waved Laynshooz to silence, took up the argument. “It is not incumbent upon the Collective to conform its sovereign will to serve the mandates of the Custodians. Indeed, the Custodians’ lack of autonomy invalidates any assumption that the Accords can be reliably enforced by them.”

Riordan narrowed his eyes. “Are you aware that the Ktor representative at the most recent Convocation said the same thing?”

“The Ktor are liars, murderers, and not to be trusted. But that does not diminish the truth when they see it and speak it. Many of us believe them to be correct when they assert that the rules of the Accord contain the seeds of its own inevitable collapse.”

“Are you saying it would be better not to have an Accord at all?”

“Many of us have come to think so. I remain undecided.”

For Riordan, Suvtrush’s assertions weren’t half as horrifying as his tone of weary detachment. “And what would you say to those races that have committed themselves to actions and agreements based on the expectation that you shall be as good as your word: that the Custodians will stand as their protectors? What of us?”

Yaonhoyz’s mouth curled slightly. “What of you indeed?” He trailed an unconcerned finger in the air before him. “Your race and the others are merely products of blind evolution. It was foolish to have interfered with you in the first place. We should stop doing so immediately.”

Riordan’s speciate fear began transforming into rage. “And if that means the deaths of multiple races?”

Yaonhoyz burbled diffidently. “Races are not permanent features of the universe. Nothing is. If it is the fate of your race to be short-lived, we should never have attempted to circumvent that natural outcome.”

Nlastanl raised both hands. “This topic is unproductive. Caine Riordan, I must frankly ask for your cooperation on the urgent matter of the symbiopods. Just as you rightly appeal to our sense of integrity and responsibility regarding the fate of your race and others, so, in this matter, do I appeal to the same in you.”

Riordan didn’t question the Dornaani characterization of the symbiopods. Nlastanl’s description of them–organic but not like any other organism in known space–echoed Caine’s own uneasiness the moment he’d come within touching distance of them. “I’ll help you, but there’s not much I can do.”

“Explain,” demanded Suvtrush.

“I don’t know where the symbiopods are.”

“We are told most still contain kidnapped troops from your twentieth century.” “As far as I know, that’s true. But to protect the Lost Soldiers, I was not given their location.”

Nlastanl rested his fingertips against each other. “What became of the symbiopods you turned over to your government?”

Riordan shook his head. “I never had access to that kind of information.”

“Very well. How many symbiopods did you turn over?”

Riordan nodded. “Fourteen. All empty.”

Dornaani faces were rarely as expressive as humans: now they went absolutely blank.

Only Laynshooz’s face was animated, more so than ever. “It is as I said from the first. This human was not worth meeting. He has neither information about, nor access to, any of the symbiopods. Besides, with so many in the hands of human researchers, the fate of their race is sealed. Unless you can breed both greed and curiosity out of them in two generations.”

Riordan flinched. “What do you mean by that?”

Suvtrush put up two didactic fingers. “It is through those traits that the symbiopods are most likely to corrupt your race.”

Riordan forced himself to exhale. “Do you also believe that our fate is sealed?”

“No,” Suvtrush answered carefully, “but I do not consider the outlook hopeful.”

Yaonhoyz looked up from his lazy slouch. “We would be remiss, human, if we failed to express our appreciation for the one matter in which you have been of inestimable help.”

Riordan frowned. “And what matter is that?”

“You furnished us with unsolicited testimony that Alnduul not only exceeded Custodial mandates and protocols in aiding your planet, but did so knowingly. Without your comments, our accusations would have mostly relied upon conjecture and hearsay. But, as you were a witness, we now have an unimpeachable account of his violations.” Yaonhoyz’s mouth rotated almost ninety degrees around the axis of its tapir-like extrusion: a broad grin.

Riordan turned toward Alnduul. His mouth was a broken crease, tilted on its axis: a small, faltering smile. “It was inevitable,” he murmured. “Your words have revealed nothing except what my own testimony will assert, once a board of inquiry is convened.” He looked away from Caine, glanced around the ring of Dornaani faces. A few–Glayaazh, Heethoo, a few regional arbiters, and now, even Nlastanl–seemed sympathetic or at least saddened. The rest were expressionless. Except Laynshooz: his animation was the Dornaani equivalent of gloating.

Alnduul stood. “I presume these conversations are concluded.”

“As is our interest in this human,” Yaonhoyz burbled.

Riordan stood alongside Alnduul, copied his friend’s elbows-in, arms-out gesture of farewell.

Nlastanl stood, flowing into the same posture. “Enlightenment unto you, Alnduul and Caine Riordan.”

By the time Glayaazh and Heethoo had done the same, the remaining Dornaani were exiting the room or had terminated their holographic presence.

When he and Alnduul were alone, Riordan asked, “What now?”

Alnduul’s inner lids nictated twice. “Now, we are on our own.”