Marque of Caine – Snippet 11

Marque of Caine – Snippet 11

Chapter Seven

July, 2123

Nevis, Earth

A moment after the glass door closed behind Downing and his guards, another silhouette approached it and entered at a brisk walk: Commander Lorraine Phalon.

Physically, she was the opposite of Richard Downing. He was made of long straight lines where she was rounded; he was slender where she was sturdy. And whereas Downing had been ready to smile, Phalon’s face currently signaled a predisposition not to.

Caine put out his hand at the same moment she did. “It’s good to see you again, Commander Phalon.”

“Likewise, Commodore.” She scanned him quickly. “Life in the Caribbean seems to agree with you, sir.”

“It’s a marked improvement over being grilled in windowless conference rooms.” He noticed the rank insignia on her lower sleeve, cocked an eyebrow. “I see congratulations are in order. A full commander now. Evidently speaking on my behalf didn’t get you black-balled.”

She might have been on the verge of smiling. “I might have been, but Admiral Silverstein had my back. And yours. He made it clear that he would tender his resignation before bowing to political pressure. Which never came: the buck stopped on President Liu’s desk, and she tossed it right back at the inter-bloc politicos. Pissed off the Traditionalist faction in Beijing no end, sir.”

Riordan waved off the honorific. “I take it you are my official escort.”

Phalon’s expression became pinched. “I do not have that sad honor, sir. But we do have a moment to talk about what’s in store for you. May I?”

Riordan indicated the opposite seat. As she slid into spot Downing had vacated, Riordan’s two minders sat a little straighter.

Commander Phalon folded her hands. Caine wondered if such long fingernails were within regs for the JAG’s office, to say nothing of the color. “The hearings on your request to enter Dornaani space will be run by politicos from the Developing World Coalition. Who aren’t any bigger fans of IRIS, or of you, than they were two years ago.”

Riordan shrugged. “Can’t say I blame them, even though I understand why IRIS couldn’t include them, initially.”

“No disagreement, sir, but that’s all high-level politics. Way beyond my pay-grade.”

Riordan smiled. “These days, everything is beyond my pay-grade.” He sat straighter. “So: what are we wrestling over this time?”

“The Lost Soldiers, sir.”

Caine scratched his ear. “Wasn’t that what we were wrestling over last time?”

“Not exactly, sir. At least, not for the same reasons.” She leaned forward; the light reflecting from the brass fixtures brought out red highlights in her hair. “Commodore, if the proconsul is forced to go public and reveal the existence and origins of the Lost Soldiers, it effectively admits that humans were kidnapped by aliens during the latter half of the Twentieth Century. That would spark widespread, if not universal, fear and outrage. And not just at the abductors, but at the governments which have been sitting on this information for two years.”

Riordan nodded. “Sure, but I’ll wager that what really keeps the politicos up at night is that any subsequent investigation will reveal that the abductors were the Ktor.”

Phalon sighed. “There’s no way it can be any of the other species.”

Riordan nodded. “Which becomes public knowledge the moment the Lost Soldiers’ public statements reveal that the Ktor aren’t really aliens; they’re just a modified branch of humanity.”

Lorraine Phalon looked him in the eyes, paused, then said in a tone so formal that it bordered on being brusque, “Sir, I cannot speak directly to that point.”

Caine paused. Lorraine’s reply was one of the many mantras of deniability learned by persons who handled confidential information. But Phalon was aware of the true identity of the Ktor and the ongoing campaign to suppress that information, and knew that Riordan had the same knowledge. Her steady gaze puzzled him–until he realized what her stare and silence signified: she had new, relevant information that she could not officially share with him. So, in the best tradition of legally circumventing confidentiality, she was encouraging him to go fishing.

Which Riordan did: “I see. So, the Ktor genetic samples we brought back: are they proving to be, um, particularly interesting?”

“Geneticists always find genetic samples from new subspecies interesting, sir.” Despite the brusque tone, Phalon’s almost feline eyes were mischievous.

So: the Ktor are a subspecies; they do have substantive genetic differences. And, logically, if the CTR wanted to expand that research, they’d have to reveal the true identity of the Ktor to an increasing number of xenogeneticists. Which meant that the cover up was expanding. Which put the politicos at ever-increasing risk. Which meant Riordan now had the last thing the Procedural Compliance Directorate wanted him to have: extra leverage. At a particularly sensitive political moment.

Riordan nodded at Commander Phalon.”Thank you for the sitrep.” He stood. “I’m ready to go.”

She looked up at him. “I’m not sure you are, sir.” Phalon gave in to a smile: it was slow and sly. She rose, straightened her lips, straightened her uniform. “Take your time.” The right side of her mouth curved as she turned, hooked a finger at Caine’s escorts, and walked briskly out of The Bosun’s Chair.

The IRIS-bred he-bear and she-panther looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.

Before Riordan could resume his seat, another woman rose from one of the small tables cinched between the far end of the bar and the large picture window that faced out into the gathering dusk. Head inclined slightly, she approached without directly looking at Caine. She was Asian, slim, almost petite, probably about ten years his junior.

She stopped almost two meters away from him. “Commodore Riordan?” Her accent was faint, but distinctly Japanese.

“Yes?”

“I am Ayana Tagawa.”

“I’m sorry; have we met?”

“No, Commodore. I doubt you would know of me. But I have come to know a bit about you.”

Caine was about to extend his hand, but stopped. Her skirt went to her knees, her hair was impeccably but conservatively cut close and short, she was without jewelry, and her posture retained a slight forward lean. Riordan kept his smile faint and bowed from the waist.

She bowed even more slowly and deeply. “I am honored to meet you, Commodore.” Her tone of voice–respectful but no longer quite so distant–said more: I appreciate that you discern and respect my traditional choices.

Riordan kept his tone quiet, almost inaudible given the noise coming from the diners in the next room. “I am honored to meet you, Ms. Tagawa. May I offer you a seat?” He gestured, not too emphatically, to the booth.

When they were seated, he waited. If he read Ms. Tagawa right, she had been brought up in the so-called neo-Edo fashion, and so a first meeting was an inherently formal matter. The best approach was simple, even minimalist, hospitality. “I will ask our server to bring us glasses of water. Would you care for anything else?”

“Thank you. Water would be most welcome.”

They waited through an improbably long process of flagging down a waiter, asking for water, and then having two glasses delivered with a perfunctory smile.

Ayana took hers and sipped. “We share a secret, Commodore.”

Well, that’s a pretty frank opening statement. “Is it one we may talk about?”

Ayana nodded gravely. “But only because Commander Phalon has seen to the security of this establishment.”

“You know Phalon?”

“Not well, but yes. From two years ago, when I was extensively debriefed on matters pertaining to your hearings.”

Riordan nodded, reflected on her composure, the careful directness of her speech. Some of that demeanor was natural, but much of it was trained, groomed: professional. He played a hunch. “So were you active in the same places I was, after the Arat Kur were defeated?”

She nodded deeply this time. “Usually, I was in exactly the same places.”

Riordan leaned back. So, two years ago, Ayana Tagawa had somehow followed his ambassadorial mission deep into Slaasriithi space. And then, somehow followed him to Turkh’saar, the world where he had found the Lost Soldiers. And then finally, back to Sigma Draconis Two and the near-fatal standoff with the Ktoran ships in that system. After which Caine had been removed from command and placed under “administrative protection” until his debriefings began. Therefore . . . “If you followed exactly the same path I did, then you were aboard the Ktor ship that tracked and attacked us. Three times.”

Ayana sipped her water.

There was only one logical way that any Earth-born human could have come to be travelling as a prisoner of the Ktor. “So you were taken captive when the Ktor seized the megacorporate shift carrier Arbitrage to pursue us.”

She put down her water soundlessly. “I was the executive officer of Arbitrage’s prize crew. We were put aboard after it was learned that her owners had collaborated with the enemy before the invasion of Earth.”

Which meant that she was almost certainly Japanese intelligence. “I suspect you were more than just the XO.”

Ayana bowed her head almost imperceptibly. “Your suspicions are probably correct, but it would be best not to speak of them. That way, neither you nor I shall ever find ourselves in a situation where we would have to lie about what we have learned of each other.”

Riordan nodded back. “Very prudent. So: the secret we share is the Ktor.”

“Yes. But they are also a puzzle, of which we seem to hold different pieces.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have interacted with their cadre and highest officials. I was the prisoner of renegades, the survivors of an extirpated ‘House.’ I lived with them, learned how they thought, even heard their language on occasion. You saw their public face; I saw what was behind it.”

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