Raising Caine – Snippet 19

Riordan suppressed a sigh. “I understand that, Ms. Veriden. But I don’t understand your attitude. You’re part of the legation, and I’m concerned with your welfare, both professional and personal. That’s all.” He gestured toward a seat as he resumed his own.

Dora ignored the gesture. “Look, I don’t need your personal concern. And professionally, the only person who has any reason, or right, to inquire after my status is my employer: Ambassador Gaspard.”

Riordan shook his head. “That’s not quite accurate, Ms. Veriden. He is certainly the only person who can give you security-related directives.” Which is a bad arrangement, but that’s a different topic. “However, as a member of this legation, your moment-to-moment personal safety is my responsibility. Whether you like it or not.”

“Not,” Dora answered. And finally took a seat.

Well, I’ve got to give her points for bluntness. “Ms. Veriden, while I’d have been glad for you to stop by on your own initiative, I doubt that’s what brought you here.”

Veriden nodded. “Yeah. Gaspard sent me.”

Caine waited. He didn’t want to make Dora any more uncomfortable than she had to be, but on the other hand, she tended to nip and snarl when others initiated conversation. Better to let her proceed in whatever manner she chose.

She looked Riordan in the eye. “That animal came at me because I didn’t put on the biomarkers.”

Bannor leaned forward sharply. “What?”

She leaned right back at him. “Are you deaf? I said I didn’t put on the markers.”

Bannor’s posture did not change, but his color did; flushing, Rulaine’s jaw muscles clenched as he struggled to suppress a presumably blistering reply —

“Ms. Veriden.” Riordan kept his voice professional, but sharp. “I assure you, Major Rulaine’s hearing is unimpaired. You may not be a part of my security team, but I will insist upon a modicum of respect when you interact with its members. Now: why didn’t you apply the protective biomarkers?”

“I — I thought it would be best if one of us didn’t.”

Caine leaned back, considered. The tone of her voice suggested that the explanation wasn’t a complete fabrication, but he could tell it wasn’t the whole truth, either. But right now, he had a concrete explanation, and that was enough to start with. “Why did you think it prudent that one of the legation remain unmarked?”

She looked at Caine quizzically. “You really want to know?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t ask.”

She stared at him sidelong for a moment before replying. “Okay. So, these Slaasriithi seem to have reversed the importance of machinery and biology. That makes me wonder: shouldn’t we be as careful of their sprays and markers and gifts as they should be of accepting our bugged ID badges and presents? How would we know if they’re marking us for their own purposes? And how can we be sure that they won’t include biochemicals that can be used to influence or control us?”

Hwang was shaking his head, but Caine jumped in before he could start enumerating the many ways in which this was unlikely or impossible. “Ms. Veriden, I admire your attention to our more subtle security challenges. Be assured, the same thoughts have occurred to us.”

She was surprised by that response but rallied rapidly and went on the offensive: “Yeah? Then why didn’t you spray your container on the ground when no one was looking?”

Caine smiled. “Firstly, I was in the front rank. It’s not as though I had the opportunity to do so surreptitiously. But the real reason is this: have you also considered that part of our legation’s role is to function like a canary in a coal mine?”

Dora Veriden’s mouth closed and then opened; she spent a moment waiting for a retort that never materialized. “No,” she said flatly. “I’m not even sure what you mean.” Hwang and Bannor looked equally flummoxed.

Riordan steepled his fingers. “Ms. Veriden, it seems you’ve spent most of your life on the sharp end, so this won’t be news to you: any probe into a new area is somewhat like a recon mission. The main objective is to get in, look around, then return to report. But even if the mission is lost, even if it disappears without a trace, that’s still valuable intel. It warns the people who sent the recon team that the region is not completely safe and that any further entry should be handled with caution. And if even a few survivors make it back? More valuable still: not only can you debrief them, but scan them for pathogens, nanytes, any other contaminants or suspicious substances.”

Riordan leaned forward. “We’re a diplomatic mission, Ms. Veriden, but we’re also performing that recon function. Part of our job is to take risks, to gather information, even if it means making ourselves vulnerable to possible ploys and bugs and viruses by which our hosts might influence us. Because when we get back home, we’ll be quarantined and examined like few humans ever have been. Consequently, our apparently uncritical trust in our hosts is not a sign of incompetence. So, in the future, when our diplomatic host makes a request of the entire legation, you will do two things.”

Dora’s jaw set. “And those are?”

“You will inform me if you intend not to follow that request, and you will get express permission from Ambassador Gaspard before you refuse to do so, which he will relay to me. Because he is the head of our legation, and because you are his personal employee, you alone of all persons even have that right. But you will keep us in the loop.” Because you sure as hell didn’t clear today’s noncompliance with Gaspard first, or he’d never have ordered you to come talk to me like a truant child being sent to the principle’s office. Which he surely knows is worse than any other punitive action or reprimand he could impose on you.

Veriden’s teeth might have been clenched as she muttered, “Agreed.” She rose to leave.

“Ms. Veriden, one other matter.”

She turned back toward Riordan. “Yes?”

“I’d like to combine your professional efforts with those of my team, when and if the ambassador permits it and circumstances dispose you to be willing to do so. This legation will be strongest when all its security assets are pulling in the same direction.”

Her expression was equal parts incredulous and amused. “Are you serious?”

“You might say I’m deadly serious, Ms. Veriden, since it is our shared responsibility to deal with matters of life and death. And frankly, I know high ability and intelligence when I see them.”

She folded her arms. “You’ve probably figured out that I’m not much of a team player. And I don’t much like taking orders.”

“I’ve noticed. I also observe that you do take orders even if you don’t enjoy it, and that you have skills which make you a valuable addition to any team, even if you are mostly working on your own.”

Veriden opened the door, paused on the threshold. Her mumbled response sounded more like a confession. “I’ll think about it.”

Once the door closed behind her, Bannor shook his head. “Caine, you’re the boss — but her? Really?”

“She’s difficult, yes. But she’s damned good.” Bannor rubbed his chin briskly. Caine had learned what that gesture meant: the ex-Green Beanie didn’t want to be subordinate, but there was something he really wanted to say. “You’re worried about something besides her sunny disposition?”

“Yeah,” Rulaine admitted. “Gaspard’s assistant Dieter got nervous and talkative after today’s mishap with the local wildlife. Seems this isn’t the first time that Ms. Veriden went off cowboying on her own and became an embarrassment to her employer.”

“By ruining another operation that got in the way of her own special brand of problem-solving?”

“Oh, that too, but I was thinking more about her political, er, forthrightness.”

Caine nodded. “Go on.”

“One of the reasons she never finished college or even a certificate program was because she always took the administration to task and made herself persona non grata in record time. Maintained a few vlogs — some directly, some via aliases — that are about as inflammatory as you can get before becoming a ‘person of interest’ to security agencies.”

“Whose security agencies, specifically?”

“Take your pick. She’s pretty much an equal-opportunity anarchist.”

Hwang’s eyebrows went high. “She’s a genuine anarchist?”

Rulaine waved a dismissive hand. “A figure of speech, but apt. Can’t find a single bloc or nation that she trusts or is even considers acceptable. All her sympathies are with resistance movements, underground organizations, and what activists dub ‘post-national collectives.’ And you know what that means.”

Hwang looked from Bannor to Caine and back to Bannor. “Well, I don’t know what that means. So please add a caption.”

Rulaine shrugged. “The megacorporations have a long history of mining anti-government organizations for support. They throw a lot of money at them: sometimes directly, sometimes through plausibly deniable proxies.”

Hwang screwed up his face. “And do these groups really join forces with the megacorporations? They’re far more autocratic than nation-states.”

Caine shook his head. “It’s not a direct alliance. But the megas aren’t really looking for co-combatants against ‘the tyranny of nations.’ They’re just funding grass-roots resistance to national authority.” He turned back toward Bannor. “But do you really think Dora’s been a megacorporation’s agent provocateur?”

Rulaine shrugged. “No way to know. Dieter tells me that Gaspard has complained to DGSE that even her classified dossier is threadbare. Lots of gaps in her timeline. Lots of arrows pointing to sealed case-files and intelligence summaries.”

Ben Hwang’s palmcomp buzzed. He glanced at it, rolled his eyes. “The Great Man has summoned the two of us. He wants that classified summary he put off.”

“And he wants it right now, I’ll bet.”

“No. He wants it an hour ago. When should I tell him we’ll be there?”

“An hour ago,” Caine sighed. “Let’s go.”