Marque of Caine – Snippet 48

Chapter Thirty-Two

May, 2124

Washington, D.C., Earth

In the windowless bowels of a ubiquitous Arlington office complex, Richard Downing studied his image on a wall-sized video monitor. The footage was from three years ago: his face was pallid, flabby. His alcoholic self.

He felt an urge for a drink, was suddenly very conscious of David Weber’s hulking presence. He pushed down the craving as if it might spring from him, fully visible in all its pathetic desperation.

His alcoholic self was surrounded by reporters, halfway down the front steps of the Capitol. “Director Downing,” one cried, “there are rumors that Riordan’s actions on Turkh’saar could spark a civil war among the Hkh’Rkh. Can you comment on that?”

Downing watched himself turn toward the journalist. “The true state of affairs among the Hkh’Rkh is not known to us in any detail. However, their leader First Voice is still missing, and the Patrijuridicate is divided over whether to replace him. Tensions over when and how they should proceed could indeed prime the Hkh’Rkh for a civil war.”

Weber froze the screen. “Your situation is becoming more precarious.”

Downing stared at his own image, then at Weber. “Because of this? Captain, that is a three-year old interview segment.”

“Which is receiving widespread replay since word arrived that the civil war you predicted among the Hkh’Rkh may be starting.” He tapped a finger on the frozen phalanx of reporters. “The press is using this clip to claim that the government had reason to foresee what is occurring now. That is chum in the water for the sharks in the Procedural Compliance Directorate and their masters over at the Interbloc Working Group.” Weber considered the scene again. “They might have been willing to let you fade away, but then you became a person of interest regarding Riordan’s suspiciously swift departure last year. And now, new twists in that investigation have put you back in their cross-hairs.”

Downing heard Weber’s leading tone. “‘New twists?'”

“They discovered that Riordan’s clearances from the State Department were not actually issued by its employees, but by persons able to access its system.”

“And I presume those persons report to you.”

Weber sighed, nodded. “For their sake, and the sake of this office, they have to go outsystem ASAP. As do you.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Director,” said Weber heavily, tapping the screen again, “your days are numbered. One of the men involved in fabricating the State Department papers also handled the request that I meet you with secure transport outside your safe house. It’s safe to assume that they will notice that Riordan’s escape commenced within the hour. If they, or your go-between Kyle Seaver, are interviewed, that leads the investigators to you. Further scrutiny into your actions that day could therefore lead them to me and this office. For instance, the ‘taxi’ in which I picked you up was untraceable, but a bystander could have taken a picture of it. Once they identify the correct vehicle, they are likely to discover what we really do here in ODINS and gut us. Just the way they did IRIS.”

For one brief moment, Downing felt nauseous, but that sensation was quickly displaced by genuine relief. Hold on: have I been hoping for this? Trying to cover the surprise at his own reaction, he muttered. “Then I suppose I’d better pack my bags.”

Weber shook his head. “I’m sorry, Director, but as with Riordan, we have to assume you are being watched. So no preparations: within the hour, a location will be relayed to your wristlink. Go there. You’ll get each subsequent step only minutes ahead of its necessary execution.”

“And if I run into trouble?”

“You won’t. Besides, you’ll have help from your travelling companions.”

Weber waved his wrist-link in the direction of the interactive white-board dominating the north wall of his windowless office. It slid aside. Three men, one in a wheelchair, looked up from linked dataslates. The tallest of them–white haired, late fifties–straightened. “Adding a few last bells and whistles to the shell game we’ll be playing with our cryocells, sir. It will be months before anyone notices the shift in inventory.” He glanced at Downing, smiled broadly. “Director, we’ve never met, but I’m a big fan.”

Downing almost sputtered in surprise. “Are you? Well, that’s very kind. I suppose.” He turned to Weber, tried to modulate his voice so that he sounded surprised, rather than alarmed: “These are my . . . my travelling companions?”

The tall white-haired one was not in bad shape, but had passed the age for field operations. The fellow in the wheelchair was in his twenties and quite fit, but, unless the wheelchair was a cover, it meant that he was one of the few individuals whose body refused to sync with smart-prosthetics. The third was in his late thirties and carrying just enough extra weight to make him an operational liability in circumstances where speed, rather than wide shoulders and a broad chest, would be crucial to success.

If Weber noticed Downing’s concern, he gave no sign of it. “You won’t see them, of course, but they’ll be nearby. Larry–er, Mr. Southard–will be reanimated occasionally to maintain ops oversight and make any needed corrections to your itinerary.” The white-haired one nodded, still smiling. “Mr. Ryan Zimmerman”–Weber nodded to the young man in the wheelchair–“is, to put it succinctly, an all-purpose computer guru. And Angus Smith is to electronics what Ryan is to computers.”

Downing glanced at the burly man. “I must ask: your last name is Smith? Truly?”

Angus may have smiled behind his beard. “Truly.”

Downing cocked an eyebrow at Weber. “First genuine Smith I’ve met in this line of work.”

Weber grinned faintly. “Me, too.”

“I don’t suppose you can tell me where we’re heading?”

“No, sir,” Southard answered. “Opsec. And we’re not all going to the same place, at first.”

“So, that’s the shell-game you were talking about: seeding us into military cold ‘banks.’ Mixing us in with normative redeployment traffic, I wager.”

Larry smiled. “You’d win that bet. Given our taps into the service databases, we’ll just look like four more grunts being shuttled around in refrigerators. The folks trying to tail us won’t start out looking for that. Once they do, they’ll have to show sufficient cause for access to those records: more delay. By that time, we’ll be at our destination.”

Downing nodded, saw the three men afresh: not merely as fellow fugitives, but as humans about to cut all ties with everything they knew and loved. “I’m very grateful, chaps. I can’t begin to guess the sacrifices you’re making, to leave Earth behind, but–“

“Don’t bother yourself about that,” Ryan said sharply. “I don’t have anyone. Not anymore.”

Angus nodded. “Pretty much that way for all of us.” He nodded toward Weber. “That’s part of why we were chosen: if this day ever came, we don’t have baggage.” He stepped forward, extended a furry paw toward Weber. “It’s been a great ride. And a genuine privilege, sir.”

Weber had to clear his throat before he could answer. “Likewise, Angus. And the same goes to all of you gentlemen. One day, when these witch-hunts are behind us, I’ll send word that you can come in out of the cold. But until then–“

Zimmerman nodded. “We’ll make our way in the world–well, worlds–Captain. No reason to worry about us.”

Larry nodded, led the others back into the small room, touched a wall control. The smart-board sealed the opening.

Weber, still looking at the blank surface, murmured, “I suspect it will be hardest on you, Director. You have a wife, a daughter.”

Downing put on his best ironic smile. “Captain, you need to keep your intel current. I had a wife. My daughter has been well and properly poisoned against me. And given what is likely to come,”–he gestured toward the reporters frozen in the posture of wolves about to take down prey–“leaving is the best thing I can do for them.” He put out his hand toward Weber. “Well, I suppose this is–“

The big man shook his head. “One favor, if I may.”


“Kyle Seaver: what do you think of him?”

Downing thought. “Never had reason to get a complete dossier. Before the war, he was studying to go into the entertainment side of the sim business. Enlisted the day after his father was killed in an elevator free-fall during the Arat Kur EMP strike.”

“Sir,” Weber repeated patiently, “what you think of Seaver?”

Ah: that kind of assessment. “Solid fellow. Could have used him in IRIS. Doesn’t make waves, doesn’t miss a trick. Mother was Nolan Corcoran’s much younger sister, you know.” Downing paused, reflected. “Actually, if you recruit Seaver, I wonder if you might give him a small side assignment.”

Weber smiled. “I will neither confirm nor deny, now or later, that any such person reports to me. Nor can I confirm or deny any assignments that might be given to him.”

Downing smiled back. “If you can, do have Seaver, well, watch over Connor Corcoran.”

 Weber frowned “Do you believe Riordan’s son is on someone’s target list?”

Downing nodded. “Might be. More superstition than logic, mind you. But some of our adversaries–Well, their motives have occasionally been as mysterious as their methods.”

“I understand, Director Downing. But as I said, no promises.” And Weber winked.

Downing smiled. “I’ll see you in a few hours, then.”

Weber shook his head. “Actually, sir, you won’t. You’ll get a message on your wristlink. Just do what it says.” He stuck out his hand. “Goodbye, sir. And Godspeed.”