Marque of Caine – Snippet 28

Marque of Caine – Snippet 28

Chapter Eighteen

April, 2124

Rooaioo’q, BD +66 582

The second planet out from BD +66 582, a K5 main sequence star, actually had a name: Rooaioo’q.  Somewhat larger than Earth, but not quite as dense, it had both slightly lower gravity and a slightly thicker atmosphere. Located toward the outer edge of the star’s habitable zone, the increased greenhouse effect nicely balanced the somewhat weaker insolation. At least that’s how Alnduul translated the data streams scrolling next to the holographic representation of the world.

Riordan squinted at it. “The image looks kind of, well, smudged.”

Alnduul’s mouth twisted slightly. “You may soon judge for yourself if the holographic representation is inaccurate. We shall make planetfall within the hour.”

Shortly after boarding an almost featureless shuttle, Riordan voiced disappointment at the lack of cockpit windows. Irzhresht turned her attention away from the helm long enough to wave a hand at the nose of the craft. Two previously undetectable panels slid aside, revealing a commanding view of the planet.

Rooaioo’q was a patternless, crowded collage of green landmasses and blue seas, the details of which, even in this view, were slightly blurred by the dense atmosphere and constantly forming, dissipating, and regathering clouds. Beyond the ink-black terminator line, two moons, one about the size of Luna, one about half as large, kept orbital pace with the world.

Riordan studied the tangled white whorls of storms strewn across its surface. “With two moons and so much coastline, there must be a lot of flooding. Bizarre tidal patterns, too.”

The third Dornaani aboard, Ssaodralth–a mere apprentice at thirty-five years–pointed to the satellites. “You are correct. However, without those moons, Rooaioo’q would barely support life. If at all.” Seeing that Riordan’s comprehension was not immediate, he added. “The satellites’ combined gravity counteracts the pull of the star, which is closer than your sun is to Earth. Otherwise, Rooaioo’q would almost certainly be tidally locked.”

Riordan nodded, watched the outline of the planet become larger and less curved as they descended towards it.

*     *     *

As soon as the shuttle’s engines shut down, Riordan undid the seat’s straps, scanned the interior for a filter mask.

Alnduul shook his head. “You will not need it.”

Riordan stared. “Another world where humans can just walk around in shirtsleeves?”

Alnduul shrugged. “Perhaps that is not so surprising as the fact that all five known races breathe the same air.” As if to underscore his point, Alnduul waved at the iris valve: as it opened, a musky scent entered along with a warm, moist breeze. Riordan’s brain chased after subtle olfactory hints of ginger, lilies, and wet moss, but none of them were exact matches.

Irzhresht touched her control circlet lightly. “You may debark, Alnduul. The area has been cleared.”

“Cleared?” Riordan looked from Irzhresht to Alnduul. “Cleared of what?”

“Cleared of younglings,” Alnduul explained as he rose to exit the shuttle.

“Why?”

“So they will not see you.”

Riordan waited until the iris valve was contracting behind them. “Is there some particular reason why Dornaani chil–uh, ‘younglings’ shouldn’t encounter humans?”

“It is not a general prohibition. It only applies to this planet.”

“And what’s different about this planet?”

A new voice answered from the thicket they were approaching. “That is a brief question with a lengthy answer, human.”

Caine started, but Alnduul almost bounded forward, his mouth so twisted that it was almost upside down. A broad smile? Beaming?

“Thlunroolt,” Alnduul said in an unusually loud tone. He put his elbows against his waist, rotated his arms outward, spread his fingers so that his hands looked like four-rayed stars. “Enlightenment unto you.”

A much older Dornaani emerged from the underbrush, returning the gesture. Although not presenting the shriveled grape appearance of the only venerable Dornaani Riordan had ever met–Third Arbiter Glayaazh at Convocation–this male’s body was more worn, more bowed. Wearing a control circlet and leaning upon a walking stick, his face were no longer smooth, and his arms and torso were festooned with patches and adorned by a fading fractal pattern of tattoos.

Riordan realized that the elderly Dornaani was staring back at him, eyes wide. Both hands atop his walking stick, he leaned toward Alnduul. “Does the human speak?”

Riordan tucked his elbows against his ribs, pushed his hands and forearms to either side, splayed his fingers as wide as he could. “Enlightenment unto you, honored Thlunroolt.”

The older Dornaani’s gills popped open with a faint hiss; both inner and outer eyelids nictated sharply. He returned the gesture, still leaning toward Alnduul. “So: it does speak. But how did it learn that archaic honorific? Tell me it was not you, Alnduul.” He made a slight burbling noise. “I presume it also has a name?”

Alnduul’s eyelids cycled sluggishly. Caine struggled to remember the human equivalent. A shrug? No: more like rolling one’s eyes. “Yes, Thlunroolt. The human has a name: Caine Riordan. He is my friend.”

Thlunroolt’s gills puffed silently out from both sides of his thin neck. “You name him so?” He stared at Riordan. “You are one of the humans who attended the Convocation.”

“I am, hono–Thlunroolt.”

The old Dornaani’s eyes remained fixed upon his own. “This human is a friend, you say? Well, it, er, he seems to learn quickly. At least when it comes to abandoning recidivistic terms such as ‘honored.’ I suppose that is promising. I also suppose it is incumbent upon me to offer you refreshment. Come along.” He turned, indicated an almost invisible trail that led into a copse of what looked like tree-sized golden rod, except that their flowers were purple and crimson.

Alnduul made to follow, halted when he noticed that Riordan was not moving. “A question?”

“Many, actually. But for now, just one.”

“Yes?”

“Thlunroolt was expecting us, or at least you, wasn’t he?”

“He was.”

“Then why is his behavior so . . . eccentric?”

Alnduul’s eyes half closed. “Thlunroolt is unique. Let us follow him.”

*     *      *

Thlunroolt ushered them into what looked like a cottager’s house build around a sweat-lodge. Except instead of a central fire-pit, there was a large pool from which vapor rose lazily. Alnduul sat its edge. Riordan followed his example, crouching in order to do so: the ceiling was only a meter and a half high. “I see your dedication to the old ways is complete,” Alnduul murmured.

“Don’t judge from a single example,” the older Dornaani almost snapped. “You should see my rooms. The latest in environmental controls and medical monitors. Speaking of which, the human’s dermis is emitting droplets. Is he ill?”

Riordan shook his head and tugged open his duty-suit’s smart collar. “Not ill, Thlunroolt. Just hot.”

“But the droplets?”

“Perspiration. It’s our primary way of shedding heat, cooling our skin.”

“Ah. Yes. Now I remember. It has been a long time since I observed humans.”

You observed humans? Riordan’s interest in the conversation increased sharply, although not as fast as the room’s humidity.

The older Dornaani sat and, in one smooth motion, laid aside his stick, rolled on to his belly, and slid into the pool. He emerged on the far side, where he removed lids from two earthenware containers. He did not exactly wade back to his guests; his progress was more akin to a swimming walk.

Thlunroolt laid the containers down between his two guests. “I chose juices that will suit a human palate and biochemistry.” The lower margin of his eyelids wrinkled. “Or so I believe.”

Riordan hoped his concluding tone was mischievous, but was not entirely sure.

“You looked alarmed, human. Do not be so. If the juices do not agree with you, my medical resources are as excellent as I have claimed, even for an exosapient such as yourself.” Thlunroolt’s mouth may have twisted slightly. “You may rest assured that the technological pedigree of our local services is well above those you might associate with your current surroundings.”

 He noted Riordan’s renewed attention to the patches and tattoos on his body, tapped the meandering path of circular and oval object that began on his arms and wandered down his lean, seamed flanks. “These are dosing appliques for life-prolongation. The modalities vary: retroviruses that induce gradual modifications of key organs for greater durability and vigor; stimulation of hunter-killer phages that detect and consume cells poised for faulty replication; and rejuvenatory stimulants for the immune and cellular replacement systems.”

Riordan leaned forward. “How long do Dornaani live?”

Thlunroolt’s gills flittered shut. “How long do humans live? The answer to any such question depends upon many variables. Modern Dornaani that are reasonably healthy and prudent have natural lifespans of 150 to 170 Terran years. This is the unaided maximum for our species, achieved after millennia of grooming our genes both to remove weaknesses and amplify our body’s capacity for self-rejuvenation. With gene therapy such as mine, and, at need, cloned replacement organs, we can live as long as 350-450 years.”

He moved a finger so it rested upon one of his tattoos. “I see you have also noticed these permanent markings. They are not what you call ‘body art.’ For those of us who elect to wear such markings, they declare our ideology-affinity matrix. I am familiar enough with human facial expressions to see that you have misunderstood. These are not analogous to your race’s ritual markings of group or tribal allegiance. These”–he ran his long fingers from armpit to his waist–“record my heritage, deeds, and choices, including matrices which signify my preferred epistemological and ontological methodologies and the philosophical and cosmological postures they have led me to adopt.” He paused, burbled through the crooked line of his mouth. “Be at ease, human; I do not expect you to understand.”

Riordan smiled. “But I think I do. They are a both a public statement of the biographical and intellectual factors that have given rise to both your concrete world view and metaphysical outlook.” Riordan took a breath. “More or less.”

Thlunroolt’s mouth straightened into a rigid line; his eyelids nictated so quickly that Riordan barely saw it. “That is an adequate perception. If crude.”

Alnduul lowered his head, possibly in an attempt to conceal a wry twist of his mouth.

Thlunroolt was still staring at Caine. Without warning, he exited the pool in a single bound. “Have you had sufficient refreshment?”

“I, um–“

“Excellent. Follow me. There is much to see.” Winding himself into a modern environmental wrap that he snatched from a gnarled, fibrous hook beside the door, he exited without looking back.

Riordan looked after him, then at Alnduul. “Eccentric,” he muttered.

“Unique,” Alnduul corrected.

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