Raising Caine – Snippet 20

Chapter Twenty-Four

In orbit; GJ 1248 One (“Adumbratus”)

Karam Tsaami, his head half into the avionics interface bay on the bridge of the TOCIO shuttle, nearly knocked off the top of his skull when a female voice murmured, “Hey,” not half a meter behind him. The resulting occipital thwack literally made his vision swim — and made his uninvited visitor chuckle.

Determined to show just how little enthusiasm he had for being a source of slapstick humor, Karam yanked his torso out of the bay, ready to tear the head off whatever damn fool had —

He discovered Dora Veriden watching him with a sardonic smile. “You always that graceful?”

“No,” Karam grumbled, rubbing the back of his head and unsuccessfully trying to remember what choice cascade of insults he had been preparing to unleash. “Sometimes I’m really clumsy.”

Veriden grinned, flopped down into the copilot’s couch, avoiding the various screens and protuberances of the half glass/half “steam” cockpit. And Tsaami realized, she’s knows her way around flight controls.

“Yeah,” she agreed, “you are clumsy. And sometimes you’re really stupid, too.”

Karam stared at her. “You’re welcome.”

“Huh?” she replied.

“Well, I figure that tracking me down on the shuttle so you can insult me is your own special way of saying thanks for my chasing after the monster that was trying to eat you earlier today.”

He had intended his tone to indicate that his comment was as ironic as hers. But Dora’s considerable brows met in a descending vee. “Didn’t ask for your help, and didn’t want it. Which is part of why I’m here: you were damned stupid chasing after that thing. It could’ve eviscerated you.”

“Yeah, well, it seemed like you could use a hand. Or at least a diversion. So I –”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about: that was really stupid. If I need your help, I’ll ask for it. But your macho button got pressed and out you charged, making just that much more trouble for me. Because then I had your safety to worry about, too.”

“Hey, I was safe enough. You were its only target, and I’ve heard through the grapevine why that was. But secondly, I didn’t charge out there because of machismo,” he asserted half-truthfully. “I’ve been shuttling people back and forth to new planets and new colonies for ten years, now. When they run into trouble, I go help. It’s that simple. It’s reflex: not duty, not machismo. Get it?” Karam almost believed the whole spiel himself. Damn, I’m good.

Dora Veriden frowned. “Okay, fair enough. Because you’d have been pretty disappointed if you were motivated by hopeful chivalry.”

“You mean because of the peculiar way you show gratitude?”

“No: I mean because I don’t usually walk on your side of the sexual street.”

Karam felt his eyebrows come down, then jump up. “Oh.” He shrugged: not like that was a big deal, or would have influenced his actions one bit.

“Oh,” he repeated and felt like an idiot. They sat in the pilot and copilot couches in silence for almost half a minute. It felt like half an hour.

“Look,” Dora started as suddenly as their semi-conversation had stopped, “I came here to explain something to you. And only to you.”

“Are you asking me to keep it a secret?”

She thought for a moment. “No. I just don’t feel I owe anyone else the real explanation for why I didn’t put on the marker spray.”

Karam cocked his head. “Really? Not Cai — Captain Riordan? Hell, he got in the critter’s way.”

Dora had made a face. “First, that was his job, right? And second, I’m not in the habit of thanking the people who’ve made a career out of using me.”

“Whoa, whoa: Riordan has made a career out of using you?”

Dora rolled her eyes. “Hey, figurative language alert. Not him, personally, no, but people like him.” When she saw the unrelieved perplexity in Karam’s face she threw up her hands. “Government types. Our Illustrious Leaders. Protectors of the Social Contract.”

Karam found he really didn’t want to argue with Dora — which was odd because he had a natural gift for contrarianism — so he frowned and shook his head. “I think you may want to revisit your assumptions about Caine.”

“You mean, Captain Caine Riordan? The guy who was sent by governments to find exosapients on Delta Pavonis Three? Who then made his report at the interbloc Parthenon Dialogs? Who was then appointed as the primary liaison for the international delegation to the Convocation of the Accord, and who then fought in the war we just finished? You mean that dedicated antigovernment figure?”

Karam kept his voice level. “Seems you’ve filled your own pockets with more than a few kings’ coins, over time.” Seeing Dora’s dark olive toned skin darkening even further, he hastened to add, “All I’m saying is that what people do isn’t always a reliable indicator of their sympathies, of why they did those things.”

“Are you saying that Riordan is antigovernment? He sure doesn’t seem like it to me. His current uniform and titles fit him like a glove.”

Karam shrugged. “Yeah, but Caine hasn’t been very popular in the halls of government, either.”

“No? He charge too much?”

“No: he has a bad habit of telling the truth. Including the truths that governments don’t like hearing.”

Dora slouched back, arms crossed, but she didn’t follow up with a new gibe.

Karam leaned back as well. “We got to know each other pretty well on the way out here. All the other guys knew him from before.”

“Yeah; all servitors of the state.”

“Yeah, servitors of states which protected Caine, but weren’t always comfortable with him or what he might do. Of which those protectors were apprised.”

Dora nodded faintly. “So they were really his warders.”

Karam tilted his head from side to side, not disagreeing, but not wholly agreeing either. “It’s more nuanced that that.”

“Oh, it always is. Naked oppression is never naked oppression. Except when it is. But then the victims deserve it.”

Karam couldn’t keep himself from rolling his eyes. “Look, I’m sure you’ve got a boat-load of witty barbs and come-backs for every occasion and this one in particular. But the bottom line is this: from what I can tell, Caine has considerable reservations about how much anyone can trust government. But he usually takes the side of government against megacorporations which are trying to become more powerful than nations because he doesn’t trust those at all. And given how CoDevCo tried selling our whole species into Ktoran slavery just a year ago, I can’t say that he was too far off.”

Dora frowned, looked out the cockpit windows; the shields were mostly closed, so only a narrow slit of starfield was visible. When she spoke again, her voice wasn’t as hard, had a musical flow rather than a staccato edge. “I grew up in Trinidad, mostly. My grandmama was one of the refugees during the Megadeath famines. She was tough as nails. Had my Mom even before she married my grandad, who died during one of the anti-refugee riots of the Fifties. So grandad’s mother took in my grandma and helped raise my infant mother, whose health was never good. Might have been one of the immune viruses that came along with the refugees. Might have been years of malnutrition before the richer countries decided to help the ones they abandoned during the Megadeath.

“Anyhow, I remember when the big countries started coming back. And when they did — even before they brought food, even before they started reopening our hospitals — they sent ‘health workers.’ And do you know what those health workers did first?”

Karam, who had grown up in Toronto and hadn’t the faintest idea of the conditions which had been prevalent in poorer countries after the Megadeath, shook his head.

Dora grimaced, and if her expression usually fluctuated between sardonic and angry, it now slid toward bitter and sad. “The health workers — health workers — from the big countries came in and dusted us with poisons. Poisons to kill lice, poisons to kill bed bugs, poisons to kill chiggers. And then our own governments dusted us with poisons to kill fungi, because they knew that any new clothes we received we’d try to save for good. We’d hide them away in a closet, where they would get filthy with mold in a month.”

She scratched her shoulder-length hair distractedly. “Dusted dusted dusted. You could always smell it; you could always feel it. The health workers claimed that, in order to be effective, it had to be everywhere. And it was. Everywhere. I had only two sets of clothes: torn pants and an old shirt for work and a faded, fraying dress for ‘good.’ And it didn’t matter how much you washed them; the dust was always on them, in the seams, inside the fabric. It got inside of us, too, I guess. Sure got inside of my mom. Killed her.”

Karam hadn’t intended it, but his voice came out as a whisper. “Your mom died of poisoning?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s what caused her leukemia, or myeloma, or whatever cancer killed her.” Dora’s voice grew distant, distracted. “There was a big surge in toxin-related cancers, at that time. But after the famine and epidemic death-counts of the Megadeath, no one much worried about what might kill you ten years later. Everyone was still worried about staying alive for the next week, the next month.” Her eyes and voice resharpened. “Until, of course, our old colonial masters returned in the guise of megacorporations who employed us for pennies on the dollar to work in conditions that wouldn’t have passed the health codes of any Developed nation.”

“I’m sorry,” mumbled Karam.

If Dora heard, she didn’t give any sign of it. “So I don’t like getting dusted or sprayed with anything. Not then, not now, not ever.” She turned to him. “It wasn’t your job to help me. And you don’t know me from Eve. And you seem like a decent enough guy. So I wanted you to know why today’s attack occurred. It was on me, and only on me. I endangered myself, and that was my business. Maybe I endangered others, too, which wasn’t my business, but that only makes it all the more stupid that you were trying to help me. Of anyone out there on that alien grassland today, I was the person no one should have been helping.”

“But you were the one who needed the help.”

“Damn, Karam, you are one thick-skulled moron, aren’t you?”

“I like you, too.”

She rolled her eyes. “Look, didn’t your mother or someone tell you to stay away from trouble? Well, I’m that trouble.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t much listen to Mom.”

“Well, this time you probably should. I’m not safe to get too close to. Hell, that’s why they named me Dora.”

“Um…Dora isn’t exactly a name that says, ‘danger! danger!'”

She shook her head. “You wouldn’t think so, would you? Hell, even I didn’t get it until I was older. Growing up, I just thought I was named after Dora the Explorer.”

“Named after who?”

Dora smiled ruefully. “Dora the Explorer. It was an old, old video show for kids. But we still had it because — well, because my grandmama hoarded crap. We had six different computers stashed away, and we used them up, starting with the oldest first. But damn, grandmama was one shrewd lady: she could patch together kluges of software that should never have worked, and videos, and songs, and, well, you get the picture. So there was this show, Dora the Explorer. She was this girl adventurer who looked a little like me, and was Latina like me — kind of. I watched it a lot. I knew my mom had, too, so I thought she had named me after Dora.

“But my mom died when I was only five, so I never thought to ask her. I just assumed it, and I kept assuming it until my grandmama was dying and called me by my real name, the name my mom had actually given me: Pandora. The mystery box that should not be opened.” She rose from the couch. “So you might want to think about who you go saving, or trying to become friends with.”

Karam shrugged. “If I had to do it again, I would. Because it doesn’t matter who you are, or who you aren’t.” Well, mostly.

Dora threw up her hands. “I just can’t beat the stupid out of you, can I?”

“Not now, you can’t,” Karam muttered as a message scrolled across his comms monitor. “Yiithrii’ah’aash is about to arrive.”