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Marque of Caine: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Tuesday, April 16, 2019 19:22 EDT



July, 2123
Nevis, Earth

    Richard Downing closed the cover of the transcripts. The hardcopy-only distribution signified how highly classified it was: sharing electronic documents virtually guaranteed that they would eventually fall into the wrong hands.

    He poured another glass of seltzer, longed to add a touch of gin. Just a touch–

    He grabbed the still-effervescing drink, downed it in a swallow so long that his esophagus cramped. He slammed the glass down, resisted the urge to bat it across the room, just to see and hear it smash. Two months now, and it still wasn’t any easier to stay sober. He wondered if it ever would be.

    Downing pushed the transcripts away. Pretty much what he’d expected. IRIS’s new, externally-imposed Inquisitors had thought to cow Caine and Phalon. But, aided by Seaver, they had turned the tables. Unfortunately, according to the scuttlebutt, the Interbloc Working Group on Exosapient Interaction wasn’t going to risk more of the same. They were going to stall, not engage.

    There would be days, even weeks, between each meeting. And every one would seem to bring Riordan a little closer to reaching the Dornaani and Elena. But then new wrinkles would emerge to erode the progress: a carefully-timed dance of one step forward, one step back. Which Caine probably expected, being the smart chap he was.

    Downing almost shook his head. Caine, Caine: if you’d been just a little smarter, you’d have prevented others from learning just how smart you really are. Or unlearned your reflex to put yourself at risk for a friend, or a comrade. Damn it, Riordan: when will you learn to think of yourself first?

    Richard’s mind rounded on him: And when will you not, Downing? The guilty thought lingered like the aftertaste of bile. The old counter-arguments and rationalizations rose up: his job necessitated what he did, necessitated putting the welfare of humanity ahead of every other consideration. Once again, he felt the terrible power, and the terrible truth, of those reasons.

    But in the course of his doing that duty, Richard Downing had fallen from the high ground of necessary action into the gutter of simple expedience, had tumbled from principled prudence into a blind mania for risk-avoidance. Because someplace on that slippery slope, a place well behind him now, he had failed to notice when the exigencies and reasons for his work devolved into mere validations.

    Downing discovered he was staring at the cover of the transcripts again, or rather, at its simple label: “Caine Riordan.” And for the fifth time that day, he thought: If I’m willing to break rules, I can probably turn this around. Despite being stripped of all day-to-day operational authority within IRIS, Richard still had his clearance, his rank, his access. If he played all those cards in the correct sequence, and quickly enough, there was a reasonable chance he could lower the official hurdles long enough for Riordan to jump over them all.

    And don’t I have to do that, with Elena’s life at stake? Don’t I owe that much to Connor, and to the memory of her father, my best friend?

    He looked at the folder. Of course, if I do this, I will burn. Literally, perhaps. But I owe this to them. Particularly Caine.

    He angrily rebutted the morally bankrupt mantras that he’d memorized, that rose up now like wizened misers intent on decrying personal feelings for an intelligence asset... So what if I never explicitly guaranteed Riordan my loyalty? Does that really matter? After all, when does a person really become our friend: the first time we say it openly, or the day we realize and acknowledge it in our heart?

    The day he met Caine, back in September, 2105, was one of those days. Downing had known–immediately, illogically, unreasonably–that here was a person with whom he fit. Riordan was the kind of bloke you could rely on, who’d forgive you your failings as you’d forgive his, and who you hoped you’d be sharing a pint with when you weren’t good for anything more than doddering up to the pub and back again . . .

    The rapid tone of the commplex startled Downing out of his memory. Cautious, he accepted only the audio component of the incoming secure call.

    “Mr. Downing?”

    “Yes. Who is this?”

    “Kyle Seaver, intel liaison to Commander Phalon.”

    “Ah, yes. I’ve just been reading the transcripts. Thank you for, er, ‘facilitating’ their delivery.”

    “Happy to oblige, sir. I’m calling to tell you that Director Sukhinin has green-lighted your request to meet with The Patch.”

    “Thank you, and please thank Vassily. And, Lieutenant Seaver?”

    “Yes, sir?”

    “I have another favor to ask of you.”

    “On behalf of Commodore Riordan, sir?”

    “I suppose one could put it that way. I have need of some special transportation–“

    *     *     *

    Caine Riordan pulled his shirt back down, resealed the tabless smartcollar, glanced at the faded walls as the doctor watched her commplex chew through the results of his physical. “Looks like it’s time for a new coat of paint, Dr. Brolley,” he observed.

    She laughed. “At Walter Reed, that’s always true someplace. At least it’s not as bad as it was when they tore down half the facility in the 2050s. And if you don’t start calling me Christa, I’m going start calling you Commodore again.”

    Riordan his hands in surrender. “You win, Christa.”

    “That’s better,” she said agreeably–and then frowned at her screen. “This can’t be right.”

    Caine raised an eyebrow. “What can’t be right?”

    Although her words were addressed to Riordan, the majority of her attention remained on her commplex’s display. “Glitch in the system, I guess. The data is formatted correctly, but definitely off. Hmmm….no system warning, either.” She aimed her voice at the pickup. “Q-command: reboot.”

    The screen went black as she turned back toward Caine. “So what’s the rush with this physical?”

    “Might be travelling in a few weeks. Beyond quarantine control.”

    Her smile became knowing. “Given what I’ve read about you, I’ve got to ask: how far beyond quarantine control?”

    “I wish I knew,” Riordan answered honestly. “But if and when I get the green light, I need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

    “Well, you will be, although given your exam request’s priority code, you were never going to be waiting in a line.”

    “I’m very fortunate in my friends,” Caine said with what he hoped was a winning yet modest smile.

    “I’ll say. If I had friends like that, I’d–” The commplex toned its readiness. “About time,” Brolley groused, and turned back to inspect it.

    And frowned more deeply than she had before.

    Riordan felt cool currents of concern creeping up his neck. “What is it?”

    Brolley didn’t answer. Instead she strode toward him and said, “Lift your left pant leg, please.”

    Caine complied.

    She kneeled down, examined his tibia and calf. Her frown deepened. “Other leg, please.”

    Caine obeyed and reflected that the last time he’d had both pants legs up this high, he had been fourteen, preparing to wade through his parents’ flooded basement.

    Brolley leaned back, looked up. Her eyes were as focused and sharp as the scalpels on one of the nearby trays. “Which is the leg injured late in 2120? You know, during the incident you can’t discuss, on the planet you can’t reveal?”

    He wiggled the left one. “If you know that much, don’t you have enough clearance for me to talk about the ‘incident’?”



    “Unfortunately, no.” She examined his leg even more closely, as if she was hunting for microorganisms. “I have your complete medical history, but a lot of the situational details are redacted. All those records tell me is that you sustained a very severe fracture of the left tibia just under three years ago.” She looked up. “There is no sign of it. And I mean no sign. I could run the scan again, but it’s going to show the same thing.”

    Caine felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise in response to the certainty of her tone. “Why?”

    “Because none of the things that should be in your scans are showing up.”

    “Such as?”

    Brolley sighed, stood, and stepped back to look him over. “Such as the lung damage from the spores on that same world. When you got home and cleared the quarantine exit exam, the med-techs were already surprised at how little scarring remained on your lung tissue. Now it’s gone.”

    “Same is true with your older, even more serious wounds: the ones you sustained during the liberation of Jakarta.” She glanced at her palmtop. “Let’s see: ‘Lacerations of the right latissimus dorsi, the right lung, and the liver. Splintering fracture of T5 vertebra.’ Which, thanks to the Dornaani who were with you, all healed. A miracle, our doctors said.” She leaned closer. “They were wrong. The real miracle is that now, there’s no indication you were ever wounded. No place where the bones reknitted, no scar tissue in the muscle or at the wound site on your back. Your T5 looks showroom new. Your liver is fully regrown, no sign of damage.”

    Riordan felt a chill moving up his torso. “But how–?”

    “I’m not done. The wound to your arm from the assassination attempt on Mars? Healed. Like it was never there. Same with two minor bone breaks from playing sports as a kid.”

    The cold front that had moved up Riordan’s torso now penetrated his bones, but not due to the unnerving exam results. It was because he knew what had caused them.

    “And that’s only the gross deviations from what we should see,” Brolley continued. “There’s also freakishly low dental wear. Your age-normal gum recession has disappeared. Even the bone and muscle wear that starts changing your shape after a few decades in a gravity well are absent. Your endocrinology looks like that of a twenty year old: adrenaline, endorphins, entire lymphatic system is textbook for a young adult male.

    “But here’s the weirdest of all–and we would never have detected it without the baseline we took after you picked up some rads while you were stranded off Barney Deucy. Today’s telomere test came back abnormal, but not the way we’d expect. The chains are longer than they were. By four sigma shifts.” She sat and shook her head. “These results: there’s no way to explain them.”

    “There is,” Caine corrected quietly.

    Brolley’s surprise doubled. “How?”

    Caine nodded toward her palmtop. “Look at the entries for the respiratory trauma caused by the exobiotic spores on the planet I can’t mention.”

    Brolley frowned, scanned. “Yes? What am I looking for?”

    “Does it say how I was treated?”

    “Er, just that the Slaasriithi used a therapy they translated as a ‘theriac.'”

    Riordan nodded, felt like he was outside himself. “I presume you are familiar with that word?”

    Brolley had to think. “That’s from classical references. Not scientific. Some honey-based mixture that was supposedly a poison antidote.”

    Riordan shook his head, felt like he was looking out of someone else’s eyes. “There’s another definition.”

    “There is?” Brolley entered the word into her commplex, waited a moment, then looked up, her eyes wide. “A cure-all? You think–?”

    “I think that when the Slaasriithi used the term ‘theriac,’ they were not using it incorrectly or fancifully.”

    Brolley leaned back on her exam stool. “Commodore–Caine, this has to be repor–“

    “Suppressed.” Riordan could barely believe the word had come out of his mouth: just a day ago, he’d damned IRIS, and then Yan and her ilk, for doing what he was now suggesting. “Sit on it for a few weeks. After that, it’s in your hands.”

    “My hands?” Brolley’s laugh was ironic but genuine. “You of all people know that the powers-that-be are not going to allow me to decide what to do with this information. And if they did, suppressing it is the last thing I’d do.”

    “Then you’d better get ready for everyone with a terminal disease, or a crippling injury, or encroaching dementia, to come lining up at your doors like it’s the new Lourdes.”

    Brolley bit her lip. The healer in her was clearly at war the pragmatist. “Yeah. You have a point. A whole mess of points, actually. But even so, it’s not up to me to hold back this information. This has to be–“

    Caine leaned toward her. “If you share this, they won’t let me leave Earth. Ever again.”

    Brolley’s eyes searched his, probably looking for any hint of deceit or exaggeration. After two long seconds, she sighed, looked away. “All right. What’s so important about this next trip of yours?”

    Caine told her. With admirable brevity, he thought.

    Brolley’s frown was back, deeper and more frustrated than ever. “Well, that’s just great. So now I’ve got to choose between preventing you from retrieving the love of your life–“

    “–and mother of my son–“

    Brolley closed her eyes. “–Or withholding information on what may prove to be a ground-breaking panacea.”

    Riordan nodded. “But only until I’m outsystem.”

    “Yes,” she agreed, eyeing him. “Outsystem and away from our labs, our ability to use you to help replicate–“

    “Christa, did you hear how you just phrased that: ‘our ability to use you’? That’s the other thing I’m worried about: becoming a lab animal.”

    “Caine, I’m sorry, but whatever is in you–if it can be isolated–could change everything.”

    “You have no idea how many times before and after the war I heard some variation on that phrase: ‘if you do this, it could change everything.'” Riordan closed his eyes. “You already have a pint of my blood and plenty of other samples. That should get you started.”

    “And then? Caine, I hate to be blunt, but what if you get killed on this mission? Should Earth lose this unique opportunity just because you die in some accident?”

    Riordan met her stare: he saw Elena’s eyes. He looked away, toward the window: it was Elena’s eyes, not his, that he saw reflected there. Even after shutting his eyes, he still saw Elena’s. “Christa, the Slaasriithi had a major debate over using the theriac. They had lots of restrictions against doing so.” He opened his eyes. “Now I understand why.”

    “You mean, because we’re not ready for it?” She was frowning again.

    “Well, are we? And more to the point, who’s to decide that? And how hastily? For instance, what if your research shows that it will cost a billion credits a dose. Who gets it? Based on what criteria?”

    “I don’t know. That’s not my decision. That’s why I have to send it up the tree.”

    “And you will. I am just asking you to keep it under wraps for a few weeks. At most.”

    “Yes–until you’re out of our reach.”

    “And isn’t that my right?”

    Brolley shook her head. “Caine, I don’t know if I can agree. What this could mean–“

    “May be wonderful. May be a disaster. May be something we won’t be able to replicate, no matter how hard we try and how much we spend. But you can be sure of this: when you submit this report, the powers-that-be are going to put this under wraps and sit on it for months. Because they’re not going to act until they learn if the theriac can be extracted from my samples and until they have some idea about how it works.”

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