Marque of Caine – Snippet 38

Marque of Caine – Snippet 38

“Exosapients. The ones you conjectured were watching over us. The ones who made it necessary for hostile aliens to resort to the subterfuge of the Doomsday Rock.”

Corcoran’s eyes opened wide. “Are they, the aliens, here? Or are we on their world? Is there any way I can talk to–?”

The HUD blanked; Nolan was gone. A warning appeared, flashing in an entirely different typeface. The bold orange text read:

ALERT ALERT ALERT

re: source-originated simulacrum “Corcoran”

Memory and cognition parameters flash-relayed to Collective for extended analysis of possible data corruption

Event investigation delegated to Glayaazh, Third Arbiter

By order of Dornaani Collective, Glamqoozht

Riordan slipped off the helmet, discovered that Alnduul and Thlunroolt were staring at each other, eyes widened to the point of distention. “What the hell just happened? What does that warning mean?”

Thlunroolt seemed hoarse. “It means that the simulation had a hidden subroutine that would terminate it when certain parameters are exceeded or violated. It also means that the simulation is fitted with a backdoor access. For monitoring by the Collective. They have just been alerted to what we have done.”

“But the Collective is two shifts away. How can that message reach them directly? It’s imposs–“

“Caine Riordan,” interrupted Thlunroolt somberly, “for now, is it not enough that such a message obviously can reach them directly?”

Riordan shrugged. “I guess so.” But if you can send messages instantly over distances of twenty light years, then we’ve got to reassess all your capabilities.

“We are done here,” Thlunroolt muttered.

Alnduul let a single finger dangle. “I will assess our last capture of the simulacrum’s real-time template. I shall meet both of you on the surface.”

*     *     *

Thlunroolt and Riordan had ridden the ledge-elevator halfway to the surface before the old Dornaani commented, “You were surprised that Alnduul was so devoted to the memory of Corcoran.”

It wasn’t a question, but it certainly invited response. “I was. But I suppose it makes sense. They contended with many of the same official constraints, the same problems.”

“True, but that is not the important lesson to be learned from it, Caine Riordan.”

At least Thlunroolt’s tone wasn’t condescending any more. “Go on.”

“As Alnduul observed, we Dornaani do not inherit families, we choose them. Consider what that might imply, if the current crisis continues to unfold.”

Riordan stared. “What crisis?”

“The Accord is paralyzed. The Arat Kur and Hkh’Rkh are under probationary suspension for invading Earth. The Ktor have refused to participate further until the Accord is changed, and would be expelled if the Lost Soldiers and their other violations are brought forth. Your Consolidated Terran Republic has postponed joining in order to settle star systems which would otherwise be off limits.” Thlunroolt stared up at the first-level ledge, which had appeared out of the darkness above. “These circumstances are inherently unstable. A reckoning is approaching.”

Riordan frowned. Well, when you put it that way . . . “Okay, but how is Alnduul’s cross-species affinity related to any of that?”

“It points toward an important variable in the times to come: that we Dornaani have a marked tendency to gravitate toward, and identify with, humans. And through that, to ‘adopt’ them.”

Riordan glanced over at the wizened Dornaani as the ledge-elevator began slowing: there had been no hint of irony or facetiousness in his tone or in his expression. “How early did Alnduul know that he wanted to work in Human Oversight?”

Thlunroolt folded his hands in front of him as the elevator snugged up against the rest of the ledge. They stepped off. “To adapt a human expression, he was spawned to be a Custodian. It was the greatest joy of my career to be his Mentor.” As they entered the narrowest part of the tunnels that would bring them back to the cave mouth, the old Dornaani’s voice took on a hint of reverie. “He has been observing your race for one hundred and forty years, the last forty as Senior Overseer.”

Riordan saw the significance. “So he took charge in 2083: the year Nolan intercepted the Doomsday Rock.”

“The affinity he felt for Corcoran is not, in retrospect, difficult to understand. As you said, in some ways, their careers paralleled each other.”

They entered the dark zone near the cave mouth, exited it into the crisp shadows of early mid-day. “I would give you a gift, Caine Riordan.” Thlunroolt parted the folds of the deceptively plain-looking saturation suit he wore whenever the temperature and humidity dropped below that which prevailed around the low-lying Breeding Pool. He held forth a book: the wider-than-longer shape indicated it was Dornaani.

Well, maybe the old coot really does like me after all. “Thank you, Thlunroolt. It looks new.”

“It is, relatively speaking.” The old Dornaani’s mouth twisted congenially. “Just under six centuries. It is, for want of a more adequate label, a history book.”

Riordan stared at it with greatly enlarged interest. “But isn’t this illegal? You’re not supposed to reveal information about any other races, even your own.”

“I no longer represent the Custodians or the Collective in any capacity, so I am no longer subject to that restriction.”

Caine opened the book. A cascade of curls, swirls, and squiggles flooded across the pages. “I have to confess, I can’t read Dornaani.”

“Evidently: you are holding it upside down. However, there are translation programs. Better still, perhaps the desire to read this book may encourage you to learn our language. Which might prove useful.” He backed up a step, assumed the farewell posture slowly, as if signifying regret at parting. “Truly, enlightenment unto you, Caine Riordan.” His arms drooped slightly. “And be careful in your travels.”

They turned at the sound of movement back near the cave mouth. Alnduul had just emerged from the shadows. Thlunroolt took a step in the direction of the sheer escarpment. “And now, I must say farewell to my old friend and pupil.”

*     *     *

Alnduul slowed as Thlunroolt approached and asked, “So: what of the simulacrum?”

“Its cognitive matrix is intact. It is more developed than we dared hope.”

“Excellent. It is no less than what you wished for.”

Alnduul cycled his outer eyelids emphatically. “It is what we needed. Desperately. But the alert sent to the Assembly requires that we accelerate the timetable.”

Thlunroolt’s mouth tilted. He put an affectionate hand on the side of Alnduul’s arm. “After today, it is not just this plan that must adopt an accelerated timetable.”

“I am sorry I ever approached you with this, my mentor, my old friend.”

“You were ever my favorite student, Alnduul. But you were also my most willful. So if there was one thing I never expected from you, it was a slavish concern with protocols. Or consequences.”

“So you anticipated that one day I might attract unwelcome official scrutiny?”

“It was always a possible outcome. But more recently, given the Accord’s accelerating dissipation, it became inevitable.”

Alnduul let his breath burble softly, sadly, out of his gills. “Is that not the supreme irony? That a Custodian can only meet his mandate by taking actions which conflict with the protocols that are the root of his duty and the source of his agency?”

Thlunroolt’s mouth twisted slightly. “It is just as the Corcoran simulacrum described: when the stakes are high enough, our duties often place us in covert violation of the rules we swore to uphold. It has ever been thus. It is simply more so, now. Enlightenment unto you, Alnduul.”

“And unto you, Thlunroolt.”

*     *     *

Back on Olsloov’s bridge, Riordan perched on the edge of his excessively responsive cocoon-couch, watching the recently-arrived Dornaani courier commence preacceleration for its out-shift back to the regional capitol. “So the Assembly has extended the delay even further?”

Alnduul was scanning the message the courier had carried to them. “Unfortunately, yes.”

“Because of what happened with the simulacrum?”

“Only in part.” Alnduul looked up. His eyelids cycled slowly, apologetically. “There continues to be considerable disagreement over how to interact with you.”

Riordan nodded, glanced down at the utterly alien book in his hands, a mute reminder of the Dornaani’s complicated past.

The Dornaani’s past–?

He glanced over at Alnduul. “Coming to Rooaioo’q: this was about more than meeting your mentor, or seeing how you reproduce, or even interacting with the simulacrum. Thlunroolt was right: you wanted me to see your race’s origins, what it came from, before I see what you have become.”

Alnduul said nothing for several long seconds. “It is sometimes awkward, but always gratifying, to be fellow travelers, Caine Riordan.”

“It is. Despite all the delays.”

Alnduul stared at Caine. “I was not speaking of our current journey. I was speaking of our longer paths.” Then Alnduul turned toward the holograph of the Collective’s stars, which stretched upward in a helix of many-colored jewels of light.

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