Marque of Caine – Snippet 40

Marque of Caine – Snippet 40

All four creatures walked calmly toward the disks that jockeyed lazily, endlessly, along the margin between the concourse and the slideway.

Caine realized he’d been staring. “What . . . what are they?”

“I am unfamiliar with two of the species. The last pair of quadrupeds are, however, are familiar to me from my perusal of–“

“No, no: I mean, are they intelligent? Are they protected species?”

Alnduul’s narrow tongue made a buzzing sound against the inner surface of his lamprey-mouth. “They are not sapient. They are bioproxies. More than pets, but less than true servitors. They can perform simple tasks.”

“But they are moving as if they understand how to navigate the city.”

“That is now instinctual for them, imposed by genetic manipulation. Their behaviors can be further altered by chemical infusions or embedded controllers.”

Riordan stared after the four creatures: the streaming disks were depositing them on the slideway. “I didn’t think that Dornaani used creatures this way.”

Alnduul gestured that they should resume walking. “Caine Riordan, it is profitless presuming that there are still ‘common’ traits amongst Dornaani. Amongst the Custodians, shared tasks lead to some shared behaviors and attitudes. But we are the exception.”

Riordan studied the few Dornaani pedestrians. They seemed unaware that anyone else was on the planet, let alone the concourse. “When Thlunroolt said that your species was almost completely atomized, I thought that was hyperbole.”

“No,” Alnduul said slowly, “it was not. Nor am I being alarmist when I warn you that, above all else, you must not mention the theriac, Caine Riordan. Some of the Arbiters might use that as leverage. We must move quickly to the chamber reserved for our meeting. We are expected in five minutes.”

*     *     *

Upon entering the elevator just beyond the entry, Riordan worked at remaining calm. Finally, he would meet the Dornaani who held Elena’s fate in their hands. With any luck–

Caine looked around, frowning. “This elevator is going down.”

Alnduul glanced sideways at him. “Yes. It is.”

Riordan suppressed a sharp pulse of disappointment. He had imagined ending his long quest in a wide chamber populated by solemn Dornaani, the bay laid out before them in the sectional panorama of windows that lined the tower’s shining crown of silver.

Instead, the elevator doors opened to reveal stolid walls of fine-grained concrete. The lighting was dim. It could have been a subterranean access passage between any two office buildings on Earth.

It’s better this way, Riordan told himself as he followed Alnduul. No distractions. Hell, if I could just be sure of bringing Elena home, I’d gladly meet them in a broom closet.

But somehow, it was still a disappointment when the meeting room was revealed to be, for all intents and purposes, a broom closet.

Granted, it was a very large broom closet. It was adequately lit, and the furnishings, including the single human chair, appeared comfortable. But there were no windows, no podium, not even a water pitcher. Or whatever the Dornaani used in place of one.

Twelve Dornaani watched him enter, seven of whom were holographic images. Of the five that were present, the oldest was familiar. Riordan adopted the customary posture of greeting. “Enlightenment unto you, Glayaazh.”

She seemed pleased. “And unto you no less, Caine Riordan. You look well. Particularly considering all that has transpired since last we met.”

“The Third Arbiter’s gift for understatement remains undiminished. I heard this gathering would be larger.”

One of the holographic Dornanni began scratching himself. “Almost half of those who originally considered attending have been called away by other responsibilities.” His tone of voice and public scratching made the subtext clear: like him, those absent had nothing but profound disdain for Riordan.

Glayaazh’s eyes narrowed in response to her colleague’s rudeness. “What Yaonhoyz has neglected to add is that, as planned, three other Senior Arbiters of the Collective are here. They signal the importance the Assembly puts upon this meeting.” She gestured to the Dornaani on her left and the two to her immediate right.

The older of those two emphasized his physical presence by loudly hunching forward in his seat. “I am Nlastanl. I shall moderate our discussions. Do you have any questions before we begin, Caine Riordan?”

Riordan reflected that Nlastanl’s graceless introduction made Thlunroolt seem like a silver-tongued diplomat. “I want to confirm that you are aware of the reason I asked for this meeting.”

Another of the physically-present Dornaani emitted a burbling grunt. “It is not your request that perplexes me, human, but that the Assembly agreed to it. Sedged gills, you have no reason to be here at all. You have no official standing with your species’ government, which itself has no official standing with the Accord or with the Collective. To say nothing of the marginal sapience that your race evinces–“

Nlastanl’s loud hiss halted the Dornaani in mid word. “Laynshooz, do not compel me to acquaint you with the consequences of another such outburst.”

Laynshooz hissed back, though less sharply. “I would welcome expulsion, even censure.”

“Those,” Nlastanl said slowly, “are the least of the consequences to which I am referring.”

Whatever meaning Laynshooz associated with that threat, it was decisive: he leaned back and was silent.

Nlastanl stared around the table. “Laynshooz’s derogatory remarks compel me to affirm, for the record, that the human Caine Riordan, while not here on official business, is held in high regard among the Custodians and many within the Collective. He is also our most promising conduit for eventually reinitiating official contact with the Consolidated Terran Republic.”

What?

One of the holographic Regional Arbiters objected. “But he no longer has access to the leaders and planners of his own species.”

“That is to our advantage. If Caine Riordan was still in the service of the CTR, we could not have a purely unofficial, and therefore frank, conversation with him.”

Riordan tapped the table. Every pair of Dornaani eyes swiveled toward him. “I reiterate: does anyone know why I’ve travelled here?”

“Your mate,” murmured the image of Heethoo, one of the other Senior Arbiters.

Nlastanl’s outer lids flickered: impatient affirmation. “We are aware of your desires, Caine Riordan.”

“Then why did it take so long to contact me?”

“Because the Senior Assembly foresaw that official communications would prove awkward. The presence of Nolan Corcoran’s daughter is the result of what many consider an unlawful and egregious overstepping of authority on the part of Senior Mentor Alnduul. Until we come to consensus on that matter, we deemed it premature to initiate official communications of any kind. But now, other concerns have forced us to reverse that decision.”

Nlastanl barely paused to breathe before continuing. “Our discussions shall proceed as follow. At each meeting, we shall not speak for more than five minutes.” He held up a hand to keep Riordan silent. “It is the majority opinion that human cognition might be unduly taxed by any greater intake of new data.”

Riordan waited until he was calm. “I have come to wonder something about Dornaani hosting traditions: is it required, or merely customary, that your first interaction with a guest is to insult them?”

Suvtrush, the fourth of the senior Arbiters, leaned forward. “Our decision in this matter is sound. It would apply no less to the other races of the Accord.”

Caine counted to five before replying. “Very well. Then here’s today’s five-minute topic: Elena Corcoran. What is her status?”

Nlastanl unfurled a single finger toward the ceiling. “She is secure. Her life functions are stable.”

So she has to be out of cryogenic suspension. “When did you awaken her? Where is she?”

Almost half of the gathered Dornaani made sounds or gestures of disgruntlement or annoyance. Nlastanl gestured toward them. “Perhaps if you prove yourself willing to provide the information we seek, our reluctant discussants would prove more willing to provide the information you seek.”

Well, no harm in finding out what they want. “And what information do you seek?”

Nlastanl trailed a finger through the air. “Two issues are of particular interest to us: the location of the humans you collectively label ‘The Lost Soldiers’ and the location of the Ktoran cryogenic suspension units that held them.”

Riordan managed to conceal his surprise–and wariness. “Why do you want to know?”

Suvtrush kept his hands folded. “That does not concern you, human.”

The hell it doesn’t. “Excuse me, but that’s the kind of information that a responsible person won’t share without knowing what the other party intends to do with it.”

Suvtrush’s eyes widened. “Neither preconditions nor ultimatums will influence us. They only reinforce our dismay at your adversarial demeanor.”

“You are dismayed at my adversarial demeanor? Arbiter Suvtrush, I have travelled over a hundred light years and waited a whole year to appear before you, only to be met with sarcasm, arrogance, and bigotry.” And no great eagerness to share information about Elena. Which means I can’t risk revealing that I don’t have the answers they’re looking for. “So until you provide details or proof that convinces me that Elena is still alive, this conversation is over.” Riordan folded his arms.

And waited.

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