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Marque of Caine: Chapter One

       Last updated: Friday, March 15, 2019 20:19 EDT



Marque of Caine

The Fifth Caine Riordan novel

Part One

In Sua Patria

Propheta in sua patria honorem non habet

(The prophet hath no honor in his own country)

Earth and Environs

June-July, 2123

June, 2123

Nevis, Earth

    Caine Riordan watched the hull of the eighteen-foot sloop recede. “Pretty strong headwind in The Narrows today, son.”

    Seventeen-year-old Connor Corcoran looked over his shoulder as he stowed the pole he’d used to push off from Oualie New Dock. He smiled, a hint of indulgence in the expression. “There’s a pretty strong headwind in The Narrows every day, Dad.”

    “Dad”: hearing that never gets old. Caine smiled back. “Fair enough. But it’s a lot trickier tackling it solo.”

    Connor stood to the tiller, his smile widening as the boat drifted back and the breeze started toying with the telltales. “As you’ve told me. Every time I’ve tackled it on my own. With you in the boat.”

    Yes, with me in the boat. Where I can intervene. Help you. Save you, if it comes to that. But Caine forced himself to simply raise his hand and wave. “Have fun, Connor.”

    “I will. And Dad?” Connor had to raise his voice a little to be heard across the widening gap. He was making ready to swing away from the dock.

    “What is it?”

    “You’re going to keep your promise, right?”

    Caine sighed. “I gave you my word. I will not watch. You are on your own.” Riordan checked his wristlink, which was offline. As it had been since the day they had arrived on the island of Nevis almost two years ago. “I’ll meet you back here at 3 PM.”

    Connor cupped a theatrical hand to his ear. “What’s that you said? Four o’clock?”

    Riordan replied in a loud, flat tone. “Three PM. As agreed.”

    “You are a killjoy, Dad.”

    “I love you too, Connor.”

    Who waved, and–with the eager agility of seventeen-year-olds everywhere–leaped to the tasks that would aim the sloop’s prow out toward the cerulean waters of the leeward Caribbean.

    Riordan decided that seeing the boat out of Oualie Bay wasn’t “watching.” It was just part of saying farewell. Okay, a very long farewell. Caine squinted against the mid-morning sunlight bouncing up from the bleached dock planks, eyes tracking the sloop’s filling, dwindling sails. Finally, its red-tipped masthead disappeared behind the northern headland. He turned and walked slowly back to his car.

    “Car” was a pretty grand term for the cramped, motorized box. It was adequate for Nevis, though: the rounded island’s only major artery for vehicles was a thirty-three kilometer coastal ring-road. Riordan slipped into the driver’s seat, activated the electric motor, and tapped the “reverse trip” tab on the dashboard’s faded screen. The weathered vehicle began rolling forward, angling toward the low eastern hills that mounted toward Nevis’ central volcanic peak.

    As it reached the coast road, the electric motor was still an atonal whine: just one of the many ways the car was showing its age. Which was probably greater than Riordan’s forty years. But the car had two decisively redeeming features: it was reliable and it was nondescript. And of the two features, its unremarkable appearance among the island’s other worn vehicles was the most important.

    In order to remain unfound, Riordan had made every aspect of their existence on Nevis as commonplace as possible. Their house was modest and not in a particularly desirable part of the island, yet not so remote that it spawned the speculations and aura of mystery associated with truly secluded homes. They used local currency, forwarded by off-shore agents who sent any extraordinary requirements in an unnumbered crate. Both father and son shopped in the local market at Brick Kiln, visited the larger stores in Charlestown once or twice a month.

    As the car swung onto the long, scrub-bracketed stretch of road that paralleled The Narrows and ran past Amory Air Terminal, its engine’s two-toned whine finally settled into a normal monotone hum. Riordan glanced to his left–surely a mere glance did not constitute “watching” Connor–to see if the sloop’s sail had appeared yet.

    Nothing. Not too surprising, given that the headwinds were brisk in the small channel between Nevis and the larger island of St. Kitts to the north. Connor would spend a lot of time tacking back and forth across that breeze before getting through the windward mouth and into the open ocean.

    Caine sighed, sat back. The roadside scrub was now interspersed with elephant grass and sandy flats. The towering cone of Mt. Nevis started brightening, murky grey transforming to rich green as the sun bathed it more fully. A kilometer marker flashed by, then another.

    Riordan resisted the temptation to look in the rearview mirror or instruct the car to slow down. There’s nothing to worry about. He’s piloted through The Narrows at least twenty times. Hell, he’s a better sailor than I am. Ought to be; he came to it earlier.

    A moment later, his resolve forgotten, Caine glanced in the rearview mirror. Back where the leeward mouth of the strait spilled the waters of the Atlantic into the Caribbean, he glimpsed a flash of white over the cars parked at the air terminal: the upper corner of the sloop’s mainsail.

    Riordan breathed out slowly. And along with the air in his lungs, he expelled the high, hard knot of worry that had been lodged in his chest ever since leaving dock. Not because he had any misgivings about Connor’s skills or calm in a crisis. Nothing as defined or finite as that. No, this was the same fear that awakened Caine in the quiet, solid darkness of the tropical nights, body covered in sweat. No matter which images of battle and carnage came to haunt him, no matter which specific terror rose up through them, the lessons they rehearsed were always the same:

    There’s no such thing as certainty.

    Control is an illusion.

    Death and destruction descend the moment you forget to watch for them.

    That was what two years of intermittent war had taught him. And once you learned those lessons, you didn’t just remember them: you lived them, moment to moment.

    He didn’t have anything as severe as full-blown PTSD. The interludes of combat had been sharp but short-lived, with long reprieves in between: not the constant repetition that shapes new reflexes, molds new behaviors. But its impact upon him was no less real. Dawn no longer brought easy presumptions of personal safety, or even human dominance. Now, he and the rest of humanity saw each dawn as being the potential harbinger of a disorienting new reality–just the way it had been four years ago.

    On that fateful morning early in April 2119, humanity had awakened into a universe in which it was comfortingly, and safely, alone. By nightfall, news of ancient ruins on Delta Pavonis Three had been leaked to a global audience, and the universe’s vast emptiness had been replaced by expectations of a cosmos teeming with past or present exosapients.

    Just six months later, the grim sequelae of that revelation shook Earth out of its last semi-complacent slumber. Alien invaders fell from the sky, seized Indonesia as both leverage and as a beachhead, and crippled the globe’s power grid to ensure their mastery. And over the many months that followed, as Caine crept through both terrestrial and alien undergrowth on missions to reclaim some of the autonomy humanity had lost, he learned and relearned the prime lesson common to all these shocks:

    That all assumptions, like all plans, are never more than a second away from a catastrophic collision with contradictory reality.

    Riordan snapped his eyes away from the rearview mirror that he had stopped seeing, focused on the road that he knew better than his own face, by now. After the fighting was over, Caine believed he had made his peace with the unpredictable imminence of death and disaster, a specter that could not be dismissed, only managed. During long months between the stars, there had been ample opportunity to confront it, to work through it, however unevenly and imperfectly.



    But now things were different.

    His eyes drifted back to the rearview mirror: he could see more of the sloop’s mainsail, and now some of its jib as well. It was easier when my fear was only for myself, and for others who had come into harm’s way of their own volition. But now, it’s my son. My only son. My only family.

    The faces of Riordan’s parents flitted through his mind; they were both gone, and he had been their only child. Connor’s mother Elena was untold scores of light years away, frozen on the edge of death in an alien cold-cell: mortally wounded, so far as human surgeons were concerned. Right here, right now, all Caine had was Connor.

    The sails of the sloop continued their uneven progress, disappeared behind the Air Terminal’s main building.

    Riordan looked away, tried to see the road ahead instead of Connor’s face. Two years ago, he had not known the boy outside of a few pictures. Now, this young man was one of the two stars around which Caine’s world revolved. And with Elena out of reach in the unresponsive Dornaani Collective, Riordan’s impulses toward family, protectiveness, and love had all fixed upon Connor. A tendency against which he fought, lest the boy–no, young man–begin to feel stifled, smothered, and so, compelled to recoil from the relationship which had developed between them.

    And which had changed Riordan’s life in ways he could not have foreseen.

    The car plunged into a cut traversing a small stand of palms; The Narrows were no longer visible.

    *     *     *

    Connor Corcoran glanced at the telltales. Their already-weak flutter was stilling, becoming more of a tremble. He’d have to tack back soon.

    He glanced at Amory Air Terminal, looked for the sun-bleached green car in which he’d learned to drive. Not in the parking lot. Not in the pull off at the overlook, either. He smiled. Dad was as good as his word. As ever. In fact, the harder it was for him to keep a promise, the more stringently and meticulously he did so.

    That was one of the first things he’d noticed about his father when he met him just over two years ago, in the summer of 2121. Monday, August 18, 2:32 PM, to be exact. Connor smiled into the sun. Not that he had made a special note of it or anything. After all, it had just been a matter of meeting his father for the first time.

    Mom had never spoken much about Caine Riordan, and there were almost no pictures of him, not until Connor was in his teens. The few to be found were mostly in wonky news and political websites. Not crazy conspiracy outlets–well, not many of those–but it certainly wasn’t the kind of journalism that reached mainstream audiences. It struck Connor as strange: Caine Riordan seemed to be kind of famous, but only with people who either followed, or were themselves, political insiders.

    Mom didn’t say anything about his father when more pictures started emerging in 2119, but she did start acting oddly. She became cautious around Uncle Trevor, Grandma, and particularly his late grandad’s old friend, “Nuncle” Richard. It was as if she had started to suspect them of keeping some kind of secret but couldn’t be sure of which ones were in on it, or what it was about.

    Connor brought the sloop around. The sun angled back toward his eyes; his goggles darkened until they reached the photochromatic shading he had preset. The sloop was picking up speed nicely once again.

    Shortly afterward, Mom had gone on one of her longer field trips. It was only when she returned a few months later that Connor learned, along with the rest of the world, that she had gone to meet with aliens. But his mother had a more personal revelation for him: she had not only served with his father on that mission, but learned that his memory was damaged, that he didn’t seem to remember her.

    However, the rest of the Corcoran clan not only considered Caine Riordan’s memory loss genuine, but proof that he had been forcibly abducted shortly after meeting Elena. Connor watched and listened carefully but never detected any sign that his mom, or even his hyper-protective Uncle Trevor, blamed this Riordan guy. For anything. But they didn’t want to talk about it much, either. Especially Grandma, who seemed more rattled by the news of Riordan’s sudden reappearance than anyone else. So, with Connor’s entire family avoiding any conversations that might have answered his growing questions, he reconciled himself to the probability that, once the initial shock blew over, there’d be plenty of opportunities to get to the bottom of what was keeping them all so reticent on the topic of Caine Riordan.

    Except it was just about then that aliens came plummeting out of the sky, dropping nuclear bombs on Hainan and Montevideo while blacking out most of the world with EMP strikes. In the middle of which, his mom went missing. Then Uncle Trevor and Nuncle Richard went totally off the grid as well. That left Connor with his grandma, just like all the other times when Mom had been away on field research. As if being thirteen wasn’t difficult and unsettling enough on its own.

    A set of rogue swells started buffeting the sloop. Connor eased his hold on the tiller, rolled with the last half of them, spared a long, sweeping glance at the coastline of Nevis. Nope: no green car pulled off on the side of the road or even hidden in the shade of the few clumps of palms that edged down toward the water. Connor nodded to himself, was grateful that his dad was truly letting him do this on his own.

    To his surprise, Connor discovered that made him a little bit sad.



    One hundred and twenty meters beyond Charlestown’s much-repaired concrete pier, the crew of a medium-sized freighter emerged from various hatches, blinking into the sun, stretching, and complaining. Both were typical morning rituals, as much a part of life aboard the SS Golden Hold as its dilapidated engines, cranky anchor windlass, and wheezing water condensers. The crew accepted all these defects, and more, with the genial grumpiness of sailors who serve on a hull that will never be the pride of any owner or flag and who prefer it that way.

    They started the day with a bit of extra grousing, since, according to their place in the cargo transfer rota, they should have been able to approach the wharf immediately. But an equally unimpressive ship that had been docked there the previous night–SS Grouper, also of Bahamian registry–was still tied to the bollards, unloading the last of her old-fashioned wooden crates. It was a particularly satisfying catalyst for griping, because both the hands and officers of the Golden Hold could participate equally in blaming another ship for preventing them from doing work that they really did not want to do anyhow. Thus, camaraderie and apathy were happily conjoined.

    Only one of the crew emerged from a superstructure hatch that faced away from the sun, on the leeward side of the freighter. He checked up and down the walkway that followed the protective wall of the gunwale. No one in sight: the rest of the crewmembers were leaning over the rail on the brightly lit windward side, competing to think up the most original jeers that could be tossed in the general direction of the Grouper.

    The crewman ducked back into the shadowed hatchway: an oval inkblot surrounded by a wash of less absolute darkness. He reemerged with a small crate, walked it to the rear starboard corner of the superstructure, pried off the top, removed his new watch, detached a small disk from its back, squeezed it before tossing it inside the container.

    A small red LED glowed at the disk’s center as it disappeared into the crate’s lightless maw.

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