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Raising Caine: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Friday, July 24, 2015 20:48 EDT



Far orbit; Sigma Draconis Two

    Downing turned toward Caine with a broad smile. Riordan reflected that it was probably a match for the one he felt growing on his own face. So, Alnduul is still in the vicinity. Thank God.

    The British naval intelligence officer cleared his throat. “Mr. Downing? Did you read me? Am I to infer that this ‘Alnduul’ is a friend?”

    “Sorry, Commander. Yes, I did read you. And yes, Alnduul is most assuredly a friend.”

    About the best damned one we have among the exosapients, Caine added silently. Maybe the only one we have.

    “Very well, sir. I’m adding you to Alnduul’s comm channel.” Rather than shutting off, the speakers remained active, a white-noise hum filling the compartment.

    Sukhinin was frowning. “These Dornaani: they make me uneasy.”

    Downing shrugged. “Well, Vassily, they are exosapients.”

    “Bah. I am referring to their actions. Alnduul was with us only a few days ago, yes? He was present when we discovered that the Ktor are not only murderers and liars, but a breed of displaced humans.” He literally spat. “So, once all was well, and the Arat Kur had agreed to negotiate with us, Alnduul takes his leave, waving his long fingers like streamers in the wind and wishing us enlightenment. A small ship collects him, swings behind the larger moon and disappears. So we presume that the ship must have contained a miraculously small shift drive and that he is gone.

    “But today, our Mr. Alnduul shows up in the vicinity of the same moon, commanding a ship that has probably been floating there the whole time. In what should be plain sight. So I must wonder: how many days has it been watching everything we do, eavesdropping on every message we send? No.” Sukhinin shook his head. His meaty jowls amplified the motion. “I do not like it.”

    “Well, he doesn’t lie to us,” Caine pointed out.

    “Perhaps not, parnishka, but he doesn’t tell us all the truth, either. It would have been nice to know he was perched near the larger moon like a great, invisible vulture, watching us.”

    “Or watching over us, as seems to be the case here.”

    “Or maybe both.” Downing raised his hands to stop the debate. “I think it unwise to either be too wary, or too trusting, of the Dornaani at this point. But Alnduul, at least, has demonstrated his willingness to help us, even at the expense of his reputation among the rest of the Dornaani Collective.”

    Sukhinin huffed. “So he says!”

    Richard sighed. “Vassily, while I am quite a fan of Russian caution, not to say cynicism, I must—”

    The carrier tone from the speakers acquired a fine thread of static: an open channel. “This is Senior Mentor Alnduul of the Accord Custodians, sending to Ktoran vessel. You are currently in violation of the Thirteenth Accord, which requires that you run a transponder at all times.”

    “With all due respect,” a human voice answered, its tone suggesting that the amount of respect due was very miniscule, “this vessel is running with an active transponder.”

    “Incorrect. You are running a locator beacon only. The Thirteenth Accord stipulates that your transponder must also relay your ship’s polity of origin, its name or code, its master, and any special conditions under which it might be operating.”

    The human voice was bored and dismissive. “We openly identified our origins and our purpose shortly after shifting into this system.”

    “You have violated the Accord, even so. All required data must be included in the transponder signal at all times.”

    “Senior Mentor Alnduul, it would be most agreeable if you do not belabor this matter. It is a quibble.”

    “It is the law. You will adjust your transponder signal immediately.”

    Caine wondered if the human voice was going to respond, Or you’ll do what?

    But instead, Downing, who was listening closely to his earbud, pointed to one of the flatscreens. A new wave of transponder data scrolled past, indicating that the vessel was indeed from the Ktoran Sphere, was named Ferocious Monolith, listed Olsirkos Shethkador-vah as the acting captain, and had been sent under the auspices of an authority labeled “Autarchal Aegis” to retrieve ambassador Tlerek Srin Shethkador, presumed to be in Arat Kur space.

    Alnduul’s voice was more crisp than Caine had ever heard it. “Your compliance is appreciated, Ferocious Monolith. It is difficult to conceive why the Ktoran Sphere, currently under numerous Custodial sanctions, would fail to instruct its ships to observe the Accords more carefully. Today’s violations would be significant at the best of times. Given your polity’s suspended membership privileges, it is extremely severe.”

    “Perhaps we do not attach the same measure of importance to rules-stickling. Our attention is focused upon our mission to retrieve Tlerek Srin Shethkador, a mission which your own superiors approved some weeks ago. Consequently, our arrival here should not cause consternation. Or a violent repulse by the so-called ‘Terrans.’”

    “I possess a copy of the Custodial travel warrant that confers permission for you to enter this system to retrieve your ambassador. However, that warrant stipulates that you are to arrive no earlier than eight days from now.”

    “We hope it is understandable that we are eager to reclaim Srin Shethkador. That is the cause of our haste and early arrival.”

    “Yeah,” drawled Caine, “sure it is.”

    Alnduul wasn’t having any of it, either: “Given the Ktoran Sphere’s recent violations of various accords and Custodial mandates, these additional infractions do not bode well for reinstatement of your membership.”

    The reply was unruffled. “I believe the correct terminology is alleged violations.”

    Alnduul’s voice was as flat and cold as a skating rink. “Sophistry. Characterizing your violations as ‘alleged’ is akin to characterizing the laws of gravity as ‘tentative.’”

    “Yet, until a judgment is made, the term ‘alleged’ is consonant with the juridical protocols of the Accord and Custodians. Is it not?”

    “You are correct.” Alnduul sounded as though he would have rather eaten his own leg than agree. “For now, you will immediately cease all offensive operations and terminate your acceleration. Once you have complied, we will communicate the purpose, and legitimacy, of your mission here to the representatives of the Consolidated Terran Republic. We will encourage them to return your ambassador as soon as they may, at which point you are ordered—under Custodial authority—to commence preacceleration and depart the system as quickly as practicable. An approved list of systems whereby you may return to the Ktoran Sphere will be relayed to you at the end of this communiqué. To deviate from that route will lead to swift repercussions.”

    “We shall be duly attentive to your instructions.” The Ktoran carrier wave faded out, followed shortly by an increase in light static: two-way communication was now possible.

    Alnduul’s voice returned to its customary, milder tone. “Gentlemen, the Ktoran interlopers are no longer on the channel.”

    Sukhinin didn’t waste a second. “Many thanks, gospodin Alnduul, for providing us with timely information regarding the Ktor’s expected arrival.”

    Alnduul sounded puzzled. “But…I did not.”

    “Of course not. Nor did you share other relevant information.” Sukhinin was flushed now. “You did not let us know you were still in the system, did not let us know that the Ktor were coming, did not immediately intervene when they arrived. Let me see: am I missing anything?”

    Sukhinin’s sarcasm was no longer lost on Alnduul. “I assure you, it was our intent to apprise you of the Ktor’s imminent arrival once the negotiations with the Arat Kur were well under way.”

    “Why? So that we might enjoy a few more days of blissful ignorance?”

    “No. To ensure that the Arat Kur negotiators could not be emboldened by rumors of the pending arrival of their strongest allies. And also to ensure that we remained undetected for as long as possible. That way, the exchanges between yourselves and the Arat Kur could not be accused of taking place under Custodial auspices.”

    Downing managed to ask a question before Sukhinin could find another argumentative brickbat to sling at Alnduul. “But wouldn’t it be best for the negotiations to have the implicit benefit of Custodial oversight?”

    “Although the Arat Kur have violated the most crucial of all the Accord’s rules, they are still members, which means that they may still expect equal access to information. On the other hand, humanity is still a protected species, since the Convocation at which you were to have received your membership was derailed by the disputes which led to the late war.”

    Sukhinin became even more red. “And so you would support these attackers of our homeworld—these chudovishniy Roaches—against us in the negotiations, if they asked?”

    Alnduul sounded weary. “It is not so simple a matter as that, Consul Sukhinin. No Custodian—indeed, I believe no one in the entirety of the Dornaani Collective—would wish to take the side of the Arat Kur against your interests and claims for reparation. But this scenario is without precedent in the annals of the Accord. Therefore, we felt it best to let the disputatious parties come to their own agreements. Specifically, if you wished to aggressively seek reparations for war damages, we did not wish the Arat Kur to know we were present, and thus, to exercise their right to call upon us for mediation. As they might, if word now reaches them that we are still present in this system.”

    Downing rubbed his chin. “So perhaps the Ktor’s early arrival is not simply a consequence of their excessive enthusiasm for retrieving Tlerek Srin Shethkador.”

    “I’m sure that the timing of Ferocious Monolith’s appearance serves many Ktoran agendas, not the least of which would be to remove the ambassador before his identity as a human was revealed. Of course, they had no way to know that they were already too late to prevent that.”

    Sukhinin placed a fist on the commo console. “And you still insist that it is wise for us to help these viridoki hide their true nature?”

    Caine leaned toward the Russian. “Vassily, if we don’t, we lose the only leverage we have over them. I don’t know how long the Ktor expect to be able to conceal their speciate identity and their genocidal campaign against the Arat Kur over ten thousand years ago, but evidently they consider it important to suppress that information for now.”

    Alnduul’s eyelids nictated once, quickly. “Caine Riordan is correct. At this moment in time, you are well-advised to protect the secret of the Ktor. Sometimes, a long-term benefit is derived from maintaining a short-term silence. Accordingly, I encourage you to return the Ktoran ambassador to his ship. But I may not instruct you to do so, since you are not members of the Accord.”

    Sukhinin cocked a wicked eyebrow at Downing. “It might be useful, as well as amusing, to keep this zjulik Shethkador around for a bit longer, hey? Extract some repayment for what he wanted to extort from humanity? And let his comrades shake their fists.”

    “Vassily—” Downing began carefully.

    “Bah, Richard, you take me too seriously.” Sukhinin gestured into the holotank: the red blip and its small cloud of attendant ruby mayflies were still chasing the actinic blue points aggressively. “I know the Ktor have not come just to shake their fists: they will use them, if they become too aggravated. I speak of what I wish to do, not what I recommend we do.”

    Caine sighed, smiled. “Well, that’s a relief.”

    Sukhinin’s eyes moved to meet Caine’s, but his wolfish smile did not change. “I’m glad you feel so, parnishka.

    Caine had learned that when Sukhinin used that familiar appellation, the odds were dead even that he was about to drop a bomb on the person so addressed. “I’m not sure I like the way you said that, Vassily.”

    Sukhinin had the good grace to look abashed, and sounded genuinely apologetic. “Caine, surely you must see what this means.”

    “What this means—?”

    Alnduul’s voice intruded. “Unless I am mistaken, I believe Consul Sukhinin is suggesting that you escort Ambassador Shethkador back to his ship.”

    Caine remembered the pasty, nauseous appearance of the hapless security liaison only ten minutes ago and was fairly certain his own face looked like that now. “You’re joking.”

    Downing shook his head. “I’m sorry, but no. Firstly, we can’t let any Ktor on our ships. We have no way of knowing what they might leave behind, and we’ve seen just how much unexplained havoc seems to follow wherever they go. Secondly, while Vassily and I are the only ones who should go, who have the diplomatic credentials, neither of us are permitted. He’s a World Confederation Consul: he shouldn’t even be this close to a potential war zone. And in my case, well, there are a few too many of IRIS’ secrets up here.” Richard tapped the side of his head.

    “I’m in IRIS, too,” Caine offered lamely.

    “Being in IRIS is a great deal different than being in charge of IRIS, Caine. Besides, if we do send you over, that might actually help take any enemy spotlight off you.”

    “Because if you’re willing to send me, they’ll deduce that I mustn’t know anything they’re interested in?”


    “And if they decide to dissect me, just to make sure?”

    Alnduul broke in hastily. “I would not permit that.”

    “Alnduul, no disrespect, but you won’t be there.”

    “No, but we can equip you with a biomonitor. If the data stream from it is in any way obstructed, impaired, or altered, my ship will consider it a hostile act against a person who is acting at the behest of the Custodians.”

    “Does that mean you’re…uh, deputizing me?”

    “Nothing so involved as that. But the twenty-first accord allows me to solicit help from willing parties in accomplishing the mandate of that accord. If you agree to carry out this task, you will have our express protection. Over which I have full and immediate control.”

    For the first time in many months, Caine felt that he had just become more, rather than less, safe. But damn it, stepping foot on a Ktoran vessel? Really? “Look, can’t we avoid all this?”

    Downing folded his arms. “How?”

    “By handling the transfer the same way we handled my meeting with the Slaasriithi ambassador. We rendezvous with the Ktor at a module floating in space. They get Shethkador and go back to their ship. We return and go into quarantine. That way, no one”—which is to say, me—“has to journey into the belly of the Ktoran beast.” Caine waited for someone to say something, even Alnduul. But no one did. “Well?” he asked.

    Downing looked up. “Caine, if we do that, we’ll be losing an immense opportunity. By asking for us to return Shethkador, the Ktor are also inviting us to go to their ship. To see it from the inside.”

    Caine blinked, sputtered. “Well, it’s just fine with me if we pass up that ‘opportunity.’”

    “Caine, our ability to fight the Ktor—which hopefully won’t happen for some time, if ever—will be markedly improved by every bit of specific data we can gather about them and their technology.”

    “Well, then send an engineer, someone who’s got that skill set.”

    “Caine, your powers of observation and deduction are exactly the skill set we need in this circumstance. If we sent an engineer, we might miss important social and cultural details. If we sent a xenologist, we might miss technical components. We need someone who specializes in observation itself, and who has a broad enough knowledge-base to sift out significant factors from background noise. And that specialist is you. That’s why you’ve become the first choice for first contact.”

    “Richard, you may mean that as flattery, but I hear it as a death sentence.”

    “I know you do, and it’s beastly bad luck that we have to ask you to go back into the bull-ring again, but we’ve been handed a short-lived opportunity and no time to prepare for it. You have the best skill-set, and you also have had the closest prior contact with the Ktor.”

    “When you say ‘close contact,’ are you including that arm-spike Shethkador fired into my back in Jakarta? The one that would have done me in if it hadn’t been for Dornaani surgeons? Because, I’ve got to tell you, that kind of ‘close contact’ is a little too close for my tastes. Don’t want to repeat it.”

    “We—and significantly, Alnduul—will not allow that to happen.”

    Vassily opened his hands in appeal. “Besides, if you will not do it, you know what will happen, of course.”

    Caine felt his stomach sink. “You’ll send someone else.”

    Sukhinin shrugged, his expression a hang-dog acceptance that life was inherently unfair. “Of course.”

    Riordan pushed back from the holotank, disgusted. “I guess I don’t have a lot of prep time.”

    Downing’s eyes were sad, apologetic. “No, you don’t. Let’s get started.”

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