Previous Page Next Page

Home Page Index Page

Marque of Caine: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Tuesday, April 9, 2019 19:16 EDT



July, 2123
Nevis, Earth

    A moment after the glass door closed behind Downing and his guards, another silhouette approached it and entered at a brisk walk: Commander Lorraine Phalon.

    Physically, she was the opposite of Richard Downing. He was made of long straight lines where she was rounded; he was slender where she was sturdy. And whereas Downing had been ready to smile, Phalon’s face currently signaled a predisposition not to.

    Caine put out his hand at the same moment she did. “It’s good to see you again, Commander Phalon.”

    “Likewise, Commodore.” She scanned him quickly. “Life in the Caribbean seems to agree with you, sir.”

    “It’s a marked improvement over being grilled in windowless conference rooms.” He noticed the rank insignia on her lower sleeve, cocked an eyebrow. “I see congratulations are in order. A full commander now. Evidently speaking on my behalf didn’t get you black-balled.”

    She might have been on the verge of smiling. “I might have been, but Admiral Silverstein had my back. And yours. He made it clear that he would tender his resignation before bowing to political pressure. Which never came: the buck stopped on President Liu’s desk, and she tossed it right back at the inter-bloc politicos. Pissed off the Traditionalist faction in Beijing no end, sir.”

    Riordan waved off the honorific. “I take it you are my official escort.”

    Phalon’s expression became pinched. “I do not have that sad honor, sir. But we do have a moment to talk about what’s in store for you. May I?”

    Riordan indicated the opposite seat. As she slid into spot Downing had vacated, Riordan’s two minders sat a little straighter.

    Commander Phalon folded her hands. Caine wondered if such long fingernails were within regs for the JAG’s office, to say nothing of the color. “The hearings on your request to enter Dornaani space will be run by politicos from the Developing World Coalition. Who aren’t any bigger fans of IRIS, or of you, than they were two years ago.”

    Riordan shrugged. “Can’t say I blame them, even though I understand why IRIS couldn’t include them, initially.”

    “No disagreement, sir, but that’s all high-level politics. Way beyond my pay-grade.”

    Riordan smiled. “These days, everything is beyond my pay-grade.” He sat straighter. “So: what are we wrestling over this time?”

    “The Lost Soldiers, sir.”

    Caine scratched his ear. “Wasn’t that what we were wrestling over last time?”

    “Not exactly, sir. At least, not for the same reasons.” She leaned forward; the light reflecting from the brass fixtures brought out red highlights in her hair. “Commodore, if the proconsul is forced to go public and reveal the existence and origins of the Lost Soldiers, it effectively admits that humans were kidnapped by aliens during the latter half of the Twentieth Century. That would spark widespread, if not universal, fear and outrage. And not just at the abductors, but at the governments which have been sitting on this information for two years.”

    Riordan nodded. “Sure, but I’ll wager that what really keeps the politicos up at night is that any subsequent investigation will reveal that the abductors were the Ktor.”

    Phalon sighed. “There’s no way it can be any of the other species.”

    Riordan nodded. “Which becomes public knowledge the moment the Lost Soldiers’ public statements reveal that the Ktor aren’t really aliens; they’re just a modified branch of humanity.”

    Lorraine Phalon looked him in the eyes, paused, then said in a tone so formal that it bordered on being brusque, “Sir, I cannot speak directly to that point.”

    Caine paused. Lorraine’s reply was one of the many mantras of deniability learned by persons who handled confidential information. But Phalon was aware of the true identity of the Ktor and the ongoing campaign to suppress that information, and knew that Riordan had the same knowledge. Her steady gaze puzzled him–until he realized what her stare and silence signified: she had new, relevant information that she could not officially share with him. So, in the best tradition of legally circumventing confidentiality, she was encouraging him to go fishing.

    Which Riordan did: “I see. So, the Ktor genetic samples we brought back: are they proving to be, um, particularly interesting?”

    “Geneticists always find genetic samples from new subspecies interesting, sir.” Despite the brusque tone, Phalon’s almost feline eyes were mischievous.

    So: the Ktor are a subspecies; they do have substantive genetic differences. And, logically, if the CTR wanted to expand that research, they’d have to reveal the true identity of the Ktor to an increasing number of xenogeneticists. Which meant that the cover up was expanding. Which put the politicos at ever-increasing risk. Which meant Riordan now had the last thing the Procedural Compliance Directorate wanted him to have: extra leverage. At a particularly sensitive political moment.

    Riordan nodded at Commander Phalon.”Thank you for the sitrep.” He stood. “I’m ready to go.”

    She looked up at him. “I’m not sure you are, sir.” Phalon gave in to a smile: it was slow and sly. She rose, straightened her lips, straightened her uniform. “Take your time.” The right side of her mouth curved as she turned, hooked a finger at Caine’s escorts, and walked briskly out of The Bosun’s Chair.

    The IRIS-bred he-bear and she-panther looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.

    Before Riordan could resume his seat, another woman rose from one of the small tables cinched between the far end of the bar and the large picture window that faced out into the gathering dusk. Head inclined slightly, she approached without directly looking at Caine. She was Asian, slim, almost petite, probably about ten years his junior.

    She stopped almost two meters away from him. “Commodore Riordan?” Her accent was faint, but distinctly Japanese.


    “I am Ayana Tagawa.”

    “I’m sorry; have we met?”

    “No, Commodore. I doubt you would know of me. But I have come to know a bit about you.”

    Caine was about to extend his hand, but stopped. Her skirt went to her knees, her hair was impeccably but conservatively cut close and short, she was without jewelry, and her posture retained a slight forward lean. Riordan kept his smile faint and bowed from the waist.

    She bowed even more slowly and deeply. “I am honored to meet you, Commodore.” Her tone of voice–respectful but no longer quite so distant–said more: I appreciate that you discern and respect my traditional choices.

    Riordan kept his tone quiet, almost inaudible given the noise coming from the diners in the next room. “I am honored to meet you, Ms. Tagawa. May I offer you a seat?” He gestured, not too emphatically, to the booth.

    When they were seated, he waited. If he read Ms. Tagawa right, she had been brought up in the so-called neo-Edo fashion, and so a first meeting was an inherently formal matter. The best approach was simple, even minimalist, hospitality. “I will ask our server to bring us glasses of water. Would you care for anything else?”

    “Thank you. Water would be most welcome.”

    They waited through an improbably long process of flagging down a waiter, asking for water, and then having two glasses delivered with a perfunctory smile.

    Ayana took hers and sipped. “We share a secret, Commodore.”

    Well, that’s a pretty frank opening statement. “Is it one we may talk about?”

    Ayana nodded gravely. “But only because Commander Phalon has seen to the security of this establishment.”

    “You know Phalon?”

    “Not well, but yes. From two years ago, when I was extensively debriefed on matters pertaining to your hearings.”

    Riordan nodded, reflected on her composure, the careful directness of her speech. Some of that demeanor was natural, but much of it was trained, groomed: professional. He played a hunch. “So were you active in the same places I was, after the Arat Kur were defeated?”

    She nodded deeply this time. “Usually, I was in exactly the same places.”

    Riordan leaned back. So, two years ago, Ayana Tagawa had somehow followed his ambassadorial mission deep into Slaasriithi space. And then, somehow followed him to Turkh’saar, the world where he had found the Lost Soldiers. And then finally, back to Sigma Draconis Two and the near-fatal standoff with the Ktoran ships in that system. After which Caine had been removed from command and placed under “administrative protection” until his debriefings began. Therefore . . . “If you followed exactly the same path I did, then you were aboard the Ktor ship that tracked and attacked us. Three times.”

    Ayana sipped her water.

    There was only one logical way that any Earth-born human could have come to be travelling as a prisoner of the Ktor. “So you were taken captive when the Ktor seized the megacorporate shift carrier Arbitrage to pursue us.”

    She put down her water soundlessly. “I was the executive officer of Arbitrage’s prize crew. We were put aboard after it was learned that her owners had collaborated with the enemy before the invasion of Earth.”

    Which meant that she was almost certainly Japanese intelligence. “I suspect you were more than just the XO.”

    Ayana bowed her head almost imperceptibly. “Your suspicions are probably correct, but it would be best not to speak of them. That way, neither you nor I shall ever find ourselves in a situation where we would have to lie about what we have learned of each other.”

    Riordan nodded back. “Very prudent. So: the secret we share is the Ktor.”

    “Yes. But they are also a puzzle, of which we seem to hold different pieces.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “You have interacted with their cadre and highest officials. I was the prisoner of renegades, the survivors of an extirpated ‘House.’ I lived with them, learned how they thought, even heard their language on occasion. You saw their public face; I saw what was behind it.”



    Caine leaned back. “I’m surprised IRIS released you from ‘administrative custody’ at all.”

    “I gave my word to Director Sukhinin that I would remain silent. He understood that by doing so, I put the honor of my family at stake, as well.” She looked down slightly. “However, the recent attack upon you proves that some powers do not trust individual oaths of silence. And perhaps mine will be the next one they feel must be . . . revisited.”

    Riordan considered the bright rim of his water glass. Ayana Tagawa knew more about the Ktor than anyone else who was willing to admit to such familiarity with them. But she had no knowledge of the state-to-state exchanges with their highest leadership, and so, was completely unaware that the Ktor had promised all-out war if their identity was revealed. Meaning that she was the political equivalent of a thermonuclear device without even knowing it.

    Riordan folded his hands. “Tell me how I can help.”

    “I walk in darkness, Commodore. We know the Ktor are human, yet the information is suppressed. Those of us who have seen the truth are sworn to secrecy, and some, like you, are removed from the public eye. But when you emerged, you became the target of assassins. So I must wonder: might I be next? And if I am, how can I hope to survive? I have no powerful friends watching over me. Worse still, I do not understand why knowing this secret has become a death sentence.”

    So that’s why Lorraine had aimed Tagawa at him: for the knowledge Riordan could impart obliquely, just by sharing a few of the low-clearance details of the witch hunt he’d endured two years ago. Ayana would then have a chance to read between the lines and deduce why such a highly classified campaign of information suppression was still in force, and consequently, why her life was in such grave danger. Riordan wasn’t sure Phalon’s plan would work, but he was willing to follow the commander’s implicit lead. “Where would you like me to begin, Ms. Tagawa?”

    “You are very kind, Commodore.” She straightened. “Firstly, why is there no mention of the specific charges brought against you during the hearings?”

    Riordan shook his head, still smiling. “There’s no mention of the charges brought against me because none ever were. Despite the accusers’ attempts to compel my bloc and national government to do so.”

    “For what charges were they pressing?”

    “They started with treason.”

    Ayana’s eyes widened. “On what grounds?”

    Riordan took a sip of water. Keep the details vague, for her sake. “After returning from Turkh’saar, I refused to relinquish control over certain individuals until I received official guarantees for their safety.”

     She nodded. “I heard many Ktor conversations about the Lost Soldiers while we were in the Turkh’saar system.”

    Okay, so she did know about the Lost Soldiers. That allowed Riordan to be a bit less oblique. “After it was determined that there weren’t any grounds for treason, my accusers wanted me charged with mutiny.”

    “I presume you disobeyed a direct order to turn over the Lost Soldiers?”

    “Correct. And since I never did comply with that order unconditionally, the chair of the board allowed the opposition–in the interests of interbloc amity–to lay out its argument and supporting evidence. Which took almost three weeks.”

    “And how long did it take for your side to present its case?”

    Caine felt his smile become wolfish. “Five hours and thirty-six minutes. Including the recess for lunch. After which the accusations were dismissed as groundless.”

    “So your accusers spent all that time and achieved nothing?”

    Riordan held up a finger. “Not quite. During their three weeks in the spotlight, the opposition sensationalized IRIS’ procedural and jurisdictional ‘inadequacies.’ As a result, they gathered enough support to compel the Institute to establish an in-house watchdog division: the Procedural Compliance Directorate. Which then launched an ‘objective assessment’ of the conformity between IRIS’ mandate and its war-time operating procedures.”

    Ayana nodded, understanding. “And is that how Director Downing was demoted to IRIS’s ‘Advisory’ Director?”

    Riordan sighed. “For the most part, he was just a scapegoat.”

    “So who was actually responsible? His former superior, Nolan Corcoran?”

    Carefully, now. “Let me put it this way, Ms. Tagawa. The truly culpable parties, those who created IRIS and approved everything that Nolan Corcoran ever did, cannot answer questions on these matters.”

    Ayana’s eyes opened slightly wider. “Why? To protect them politically?”

    “No. Because they cannot be put in a position where their oaths of office would necessitate that they perjure themselves.” Because, even if asked directly, they cannot reveal what the Ktor have done and who the Ktor really are. Not without violating their own secrecy orders. C’mon, Ayana: connect the dots . . .

    Ayana’s eyes opened even wider. Then she nodded slowly. “I thank you, Commodore Riordan. Very much.”

    Riordan swallowed the last of the water in his glass. Ayana Tagawa had proven to be a fast study, and as her eyes faded off into a hundred meter stare, he could imagine them looking inward, seeing how the dominoes he’d just unveiled could fall. And crush her. The parties responsible for withholding and twisting information had put their careers on the line to avert a war that humanity could not survive, let alone win. And the assassination attempt against Riordan signified that some of them were willing to kill to protect those secrets.

    Caine suppressed a shiver. What Ayana still didn’t know was that, from the start, the DWC had militated for a “total” solution: the outright elimination of the Lost Soldiers and any other potential intelligence leaks. They had never relented on that point and so, as their presence in IRIS grew, so too did their ability to identify and preemptively eliminate such threats: threats such as Ayana Tagawa.

    As Ayana’s gaze faded back into the here and now, Caine saw the weight of realization settle in her eyes. But she still didn’t–couldn’t–realize that in actuality, she was as good as dead. But Caine wouldn’t allow that outcome: something else that Phalon had probably anticipated.

    “Go to my people,” Riordan said, surprised as the unplanned words came out of his mouth.

    She blinked. “Your…people?”

    “Not the ones here.” After a pause, he glanced at the ceiling. “The ones out there.”

    “But how will they know that I–?”

    “They no longer have the ability to reach me, but I can tell you how to reach them. No promises, though: it was arranged as a dead-drop. They may have abandoned it.”

    Ayana’s attention was absolute, tense. “I saw reports that Colonel Bannor Rulaine, your former executive officer, was working as a military contractor on Epsilon Indi. I presume I must go–”

    Riordan shook his head. “The only way he’d still be in that system is if someone there put him in a cell. Or a coffin. You go to Zeta Tucanae.”

    “But how–?”

    “Zeta Tucanae, Ms. Tagawa. And you can’t share that destination with anyone. That secret is also on both your own and your family’s honor.”

    She nodded sharply, breathed out a hoarse, “Hai.”

    Riordan nodded back. “Zeta Tucanae used to be a year and a half by shift carrier. It’s a lot less now if you get a ride on one of the upgraded ones.”

    “That–that would require all my funds,” she stammered.

    Riordan stared at her. “Ms. Tagawa, you’re the intelligence professional, not me. But if you’re not sure what’s at stake, let me make it clearer: if you stay here, whatever money you’ve saved is going to be your burial fund. If you don’t have enough money, then take out a loan and run. Default.”

    She stiffened at that suggestion. Two resolves–honor and survival–vied in her eyes.

    “Look,” Caine added, “you don’t have a lot of time. Now that these assassins are acting openly, their operational timeline has to be accelerated. So whatever time bomb you are already sitting on has just had its fuse shortened. Drastically.”

    She nodded, her lips an unflinching line. “So,” she almost whispered, “Zeta Tucanae.”

    He nodded back. “Once there, go to a place called Theresa King’s Outfitting and Overnight. Post an ad–just a handbill–looking for work as a combination translator and assistant office manager. The second Tuesday after you put it up, go to a bar about a block away called Charny’s, just after local sundown. Go there again the following Tuesday, same time. If no one shows on your second visit, it means my people have been compromised, are gone, or were never there. Or you’ve got a tail, so they’re not going to show.” He met and held her gaze. “That’s all the information I have.”

    Her smile was small but genuine. “I quite understand, Commodore. Basic operational security: we cannot reveal what we do not know.”

    He nodded. “You know the drill better than I do. I just hope this helps.”

    She stood. “It is a destination and a chance to preserve both my honor and my life.” She bowed slightly and held it. “Thank you, Commodore Riordan.”

    He rose and returned her bow. She dipped slightly lower then turned and headed for the exit. She didn’t seem to be rushing–her individual motions appeared almost casual–but she was gone with remarkable speed.

    Riordan waited thirty seconds and then strolled toward the darkened windows and the vehicle that Phalon surely had waiting just outside.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image