Marque of Caine – Snippet 47

Marque of Caine – Snippet 47

Chapter Thirty-One

May, 2124

Orbiting Glamqoozht, BD+80 238

Irzhresht looked away from the six holographic readouts that were positioned around her head and reflected in her large eyes. “Third Arbiter Glayaazh is aboard.”

“Thank you,” Alnduul rose from his cocoon-couch. “Please instruct Ssaodralth to escort her to my briefing room. We shall join her presently.”

“We?” echoed Riordan, who was studying a holograph which tracked the relationship between power plant activity, drive settings, and fuel endurance. He had progressed far enough with his Dornaani to decipher occasional labels on simpler controls. This constantly transmogrifying display was far more challenging.

“Glayaazh requested that you be present for her farewell.”

Riordan rose, smiling. “I wasn’t aware she’d taken such a liking to me.”

“She has, but I suspect she has a more specific reason.”

“Which is?”

The iris valve dilated in front of them. “Let us go find out together,” Alnduul said.

*     *     *

Although younger than Thlunroolt, Glayaazh seemed far more elderly. Probably because she eschewed the restorative patches that were de rigeur on almost all Dornaani who were middle-aged or older.

However, the slowness’ of her silent gesture of greeting seemed more a matter of sadness than decrepitude. She stepped forward, one index finger raised. Alnduul mirrored her and their fingertips touched. In all the time Riordan had spent with Dornaani, he had never witnessed any unnecessary physical contact between them.

Glayaazh trailed a finger to the side. “There are no happy meetings without sad partings. As you know.”

“As I know.”

To Riordan, it sounded like a farewell between a favorite aunt and a beloved nephew.

Glayaazh straightened. “You will soon be summoned to appear before the Collective’s Custodial review board.”

Alnduul’s outer lids cycled slowly.

“The travesty of these meetings will be reprised there. However, you are in a position to make a good-faith demonstration that would influence them.”

“You mean, bribe them to rule in my favor.”

Glayaazh’s mouth twisted slightly. “When the stakes are high, review boards become more transactional.”

“Surely you are not recommending I avail myself of such opportunities?”

Glayaazh touched the tips of her two index fingers as if she were completing a circuit. “Remain alert to any opportunities which preserve your freedom of action. Which you shall surely lose if you cannot sway some of board.”

Alnduul’s expression changed from surprise to deep reflection. It seemed to Riordan that his friend had heard something more specific in Glayaazh’s last words than he had.

She turned toward Caine. “I regret that the gathering was not conducive to making a closer acquaintance, to say nothing of my inability to be of more help to you and Elena Corcoran. Perhaps this shall, in some small measure, make up for that.” She placed a small, clear tetrahedron upon the table: a Dornaani data crystal.

Riordan raised his left eyebrow. “May I ask what is on it?”

“Many things. Most importantly, complete reports on the investigatory measures taken to locate Elena Corcoran. Beyond the trail left by her medical maintenance module’s transfer from one carrier to the next, there are also conjectures about its subsequent destinations.”

“And no one has followed up on those?”

“Not for half a year.”

Riordan shook his head. “Tell me, Glayaazh: does anything work the way it should in the Collective?”

Caine had been expecting any of a number of responses–irritation, shared amusement, crestfallen agreement–but intense focus had not been among them. “It is interesting that you should ask that, Caine Riordan.”

“Why?”

“Because I wonder what you will report of us when you return home.”

“I doubt anyone is going to ask me.”

“They shall. They have no choice. Since you will be their only source of intelligence, their objections will be overruled by necessity. But at this moment, indulge me. Let us presume that your leaders ask you to assess whether the Custodians can be relied upon to defend humanity as a protected species. What would you tell them?”

“I’d tell them that the Collective will not prevent the Custodians from carrying out their duty.”

Glayaazh’s eyes widened slightly. “A surprisingly optimistic response.”

Riordan smiled. “Not really. The Collective can’t risk abandoning Earth. If the Ktor conquer us, they’d become much more dangerous to you. But secondly, you’d be breaking your own rules and showing the other races that the Dornaani can’t be trusted. That would destroy the Accord more certainly than anything else.”

Glayaazh’s eyelid drooped in sad agreement. She gestured toward the data crystal. “Your search for Elena Corcoran may lead you down pathways you cannot foresee, require expertise on topics you do not yet know exist. If so, the crystal contains data and contacts that should prove useful. Among them are marginalized experts, even hobbyists, who will have insights into recondite yet crucial variables that are beyond the purview, or even grasp, of Collective officials.

“And now, as you say in English, ‘fare-well’.” She said it as two words, thereby emphasizing the original meaning.

Turning to Alnduul, she executed the parting gesture, seemed to stretch her fingers out as wide as they could go. “Enlightenment unto you always, Alnduul.”

“And may it radiate ever brighter from you, Glayaazh.”

When the iris valve closed behind her, Alnduul picked up the data crystal, extended it toward Riordan. “It is yours to do with as you please, but be careful with the data. I suspect that some of it may prove . . . provocative.”

Riordan shook his head. “I wonder if you could run that through a translator, first. Make me a copy?”

Alnduul slipped the crystal into one of the small pockets on the abbreviated vest that most Dornaani wore while on duty. “I will attempt to do so. Yesterday, my Custodial oath would have prevented me from doing so, just as I was restricted as to which of your questions I might answer, and to what degree.”

It took Riordan a moment to overcome his surprise. “And that has changed? Why?”

“Although you have been dismissed by the gathering, they did not instruct you to depart Collective space, nor did they place any limits upon your travel within it. Yet you remain my personal responsibility. Even my Custodial duties do not take precedence over that. Accordingly, while I may not volunteer information, any questions you ask must be answered if, in my judgment, failure to do so could endanger you. And after these meetings, my standards of judgment shall be quite liberal.”

Caine cocked an eyebrow. “I suspect I’ll be asking you a lot of questions, then.”

“So do I.” Alnduul moved briskly to the door; it scissored open before him. “We must move swiftly, now. Once I face the review board, I may no longer be a Custodian and so, no longer have a ship. Until then, I shall take you any place Olsloov can reach.”

Riordan nodded. “Which is probably the only way I’m going to find Elena.”

“Yes, but it also exposes you to potential dangers. The Dornaani you seek will also know that you are no longer an official visitor, so I doubt my ability to ensure that your interactions with them are both productive and safe.”

“Why?”

“As a Custodian, I can be called upon to bear witness to what other Dornaani do or say in my presence. Consequently, they will only speak freely in my absence. Which also makes it easier for them to exploit you.”

“Exploit me how?”

“There is no way to know that beforehand. However, much of the information you require is likely to be esoteric, recondite, illegal, or all three. Purveyors of such knowledge often have unusual motivations. So be cautious.”

“I will be. I’d also like to be armed.”

Alnduul burbled. “Unfortunately, all materials aboard this ship are the property of the Custodians. You may only use them during an emergency and only under my supervision.”

So now I have to start scrounging for my own equipment? “I’m becoming a more problematic passenger with every passing day.”

“Perhaps, but with every day passing day, our paths also cleave closer.”

Riordan grinned, quipped, “Not if they take your ship away.”

Alnduul’s answering stare was grave. “Then more than ever.”

*     *     *

Yaonhoyz accepted the tight-beam message after ensuring that his thoroughly illegal scrambler was functioning. “I await your orders.”

“That is well, since I must convey them swiftly. Have you secured the physical evidence for use against Alnduul?”

“I have,” Yaonhoyz replied. “The recordings were difficult to obtain, but even Alnduul has made a few enemies within the Custodians.”

“Fortunate. The board must be convened as quickly as possible, that we may put an end to the human’s intrusions. In the meantime, I trust our new operative is properly positioned to impede his and Alnduul’s further progress?”

“There is little doubt of that. All the necessary pass-codes and authorizations have been provided as per that operative’s requests and were secured without arousing suspicion or inquiry.”

“That had best be the case. We cannot be implicated in the neutralization of either Alnduul or Glayaazh. In regard to the latter, has a suitable replacement pilot been secured for service on Glayaazh’s ship?”

“Yes, but he lacks experience as a party to illicit actions.” An edge of irritability crept into Yaonhoyz’s voice. “Suborning him was an imprudent risk.”

“Your tone offends even more than your impertinent words.”

“My apologies.”

“Accepted. I share your reservations regarding operatives whose cooperation must be extorted, but we required a crewperson whose record is beyond reproach. Do you have anything else to report?”

“Just that I abhor dealing with lojis.”

“Who does not? But they excel at subterfuge and assassination. More importantly, they are all expendable, especially the black market facilitator through whom you made our anonymous arrangements. She will be eliminated before our plot unfolds. And once it has, and investigators discover her involvement, where will they seek other perpetrators?”

Yaonhoyz felt satisfaction, even pleasure. “Among her loji associates.”

“Precisely. All that remains now is for you to give the orders that set our plans in motion. Which you will not achieve by reveling in your smug bigotry. This communication is ended.”

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