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Raising Caine: Chapter Eleven

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



Far orbit; Sigma Draconis Two

    By the time Caine and Downing reached the secure conference room on board the Commonwealth shift-carrier Lincoln, the rest of their delegation workgroup was present: Sukhinin, Gray Rinehart, and biological expert Ben Hwang. The Marine guards started to close the door—

    Flashing a clearance card at the guards and breezing past them into the compartment, Etienne Gaspard continued toward the head of the table. Once there, he took the chair that the other five had left unoccupied, so as to avoid the appearance of taking charge. “Good,” Gaspard said, “we are gathered.”

    Caine and Downing exchanged looks. “Why yes,” Downing murmured, “we are gathered.”

    Caine resisted the impulse to close his eyes. Really? I’m going to have to babysit this jackass across god knows how many light years?

    Sukhinin had the rank, both military and political, to bring Gaspard to heel. Or at least, to try: “Gospodin Gaspard, while it is good of you to come, it is also a mystery. You were not summoned, to my knowledge.”

    “An understandable oversight. Fortunately, upon debarking from Doppelganger, I requested an update on all top clearance communiqués. When I saw the topic of this meeting, I realized that I would have to be involved. It is only logical that we are sending a consul to the Slaasriithi, is it not?”

    “Yes,” Sukhinin said slowly, “it is.”

    “Then let me be the first to congratulate you on this extraordinary assignment, Admiral Sukhinin. I’m sure you will be—”

    “I’m not going,” Vassily said with all the animation of a slab of granite. “You are.”

    Gaspard smiled, then looked at Vassily and the other people in the room. The smile fell away from his face. “Gentlemen, this jest is in very poor taste.”

    “It is not a jest, gospodin Gaspard. Consul Visser must return to Earth. I must remain here, due to relationships already forged with the Arat Kur. You are the only available consul.”

    “But—but I have prepared for this assignment to Homenest assiduously, constantly, for many months! It is an outrage that I should be asked to—”

    “Gospodin Gaspard, you are not being asked. You are being told. Am I clear?”

    Gaspard finished sputtering, remembered the poise he had lost about two sentences earlier. “What is not clear to me, Admiral Sukhinin, is whether you have the authority to make this decision.”

    Sukhinin smiled. It was not a pleasant expression. “Computer,” he spoke at the ceiling, “secure communication protocol Borodino Five. Raise UCS Trafalgar.”

    Within two seconds, a new voice boomed out of the speakers: Admiral Lord Thomas Halifax, C-in-C of the Republic Expeditionary Fleet. “Vassily, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

    “Thomas, I am sorry to disturb you, but I require a confirmation of one of today’s earlier decisions. You are comfortable designating Consul Gaspard as Ambassador Plenipotentiary to the Slaasriithi, yes?”

    “Comfortable? Completely! Right man for the job, I’d say. And we can’t have you gallivanting off to parts unknown, you old war-dog.” He paused. “Problems, Vassily?”

    Sukhinin’s narrowed eyes and mirthless grin were aimed at Gaspard. “No, I think not. Thank you, Thomas. Tea, sometime?”

    “Of course. Your way or mine, Vassily?”

    Sukhinin sighed. “I am a good host. We shall spoil the tea with milk and serve it in dainty cups.”

    “Right, then. I’ll have my orderly set it up. Halifax out.”

    “Computer,” Sukhinin spoke to the ceiling, “close channel.” He lowered his gaze back to Gaspard. “Consul Visser solicited Admiral Lord Halifax’s recommendation on this matter. He witnessed, and seconded, her appointment of me as her replacement. Therefore, it has the approval of both military and civilian authorities. Now, are there any further questions about my orders?”

    Gaspard’s chin was desperately high. “No, Admiral. I am satisfied as to their legality, but must question their advisability. Specifically, what background materials do we have on the Slaasriithi?”

    Downing leaned forward. “Only the ‘child’s primer’ that they gave to us at the Convocation, of which I believe you received a copy.”

    “Yes…but, mon Dieu, that document is so general as to be worthless. Have you not requested more details?

    “We have,” Caine explained. “When we asked for a more extensive history of their species, we got a response that boils down to ‘come meet us; then you will understand.’”

    Gaspard stared at the others in the room. “Gentlemen, must we truly accept such an enigmatic invitation? This is all most irregular.”

    “Yes, it’s irregular,” agreed Downing. “But yes, you must go. This is not just a matter of seeking a conventional, real politik alliance, but a unique oportunity to initiate a technical intelligence pipeline that could furnish us with paradigm-shifting advances. Bloody hell, if the Slaasriithi don’t keep you bottled up in your own modules the whole time, just touring their ship could be an engineering gold mine.”

    Riordan took up the thread. “The Dornaani have told us, point-blank, that the Slaasriithi are significantly more advanced than the Arat Kur, whose technology we’ve now inspected in detail. The Arat Kur fusion plants are smaller and more efficient than ours, as are their anti-matter production and retention systems. The Slaasriithi are an order of magnitude more advanced.”

    “Gentlemen,” Gaspard sighed, “your enthusiasm for machinery is understandable. But are there no other objectives? No cultural initiatives? That, after all, is my area of expertise.”

    Caine leaned forward. “Frankly, I think the cultural benefits of a meeting with the Slaasriithi could be the most significant, in the long view.”

    Gaspard, finding some ground on which he was comfortable, leaned into Caine’s comment. “Go on, Mr. Riordan.”

    “The Slaasriithi are a conduit into the deeper history of this part of space and of the exosapient races we’ve discovered within it. They might be able to answer key strategic questions, such as: why are so many intelligent races contained in a one hundred light year diameter sphere? Why is there no Convocation record of making contact with other intelligences beyond that range? Why are so many green worlds readily inhabitable by the majority of the races of the Accord?”

    Gaspard’s eyebrows had risen high on his forehead. “I understand that these are crucial questions, but they speak more to cosmology than strategy, non?”

    “Not entirely,” Riordan responded. “Getting those answers helps us understand the larger political and astrographic environment in which we’re operating.”

    “Have we not had analysts studying these ramifications?”

    “Mr. Gaspard, as I understand it, every single analyst we have has been working overtime for the past year and then at triple-speed when we were invaded. This is really the first opportunity we’ve had to lean back and look at the bigger picture. There have been too many impending catastrophes to spend time pondering the deepest implications of the marble and granite bones of the twenty-thousand-year-old human ruin—and conundrum—we found on Delta Pavonis Three.”

    Gaspard nodded. “Yes, I have thought this too. Even now, too many strategists and statespersons are flushed with the euphoria of victory and the relief of deliverance. They are not speculating upon the mysteries behind us, only upon the possibilities before us.”

    Caine nodded. Well, Gaspard had frequently been an asshole, but he was proving to be a fairly insightful asshole. “Mr. Gaspard, I couldn’t have said that better myself.”

    Gaspard frowned, considered. “No, you probably could not have.”

    So he’s not just an asshole: he’s a total asshole. Aloud: “I just hope the Slaasriithi are going to be as productive as we’d like them to be in answering these questions.”

    Downing leaned forward. “Why do you think they wouldn’t be?”

    Caine shrugged. “I don’t mean they’d be uncooperative, but so far, their self-representation suggests that they might not record or even think of history the way we do.”

    Gaspard shook his head. “History is history. How can it be different?”

    Ben Hwang folded his hands as he took up the explanation. “The Slaasriithi are polytaxic. The integration and interaction between their different subspecies—or, more properly, taxae—may either necessitate a tendency toward what we would think of as self-effacing consensualism. There are hints, in the primer they relayed to us, that in their society, pride of self and cult of personality are not merely morally egregious but might be considered dangerous psychopathologies.”

    “What you are suggesting, then,” Gaspard summarized over steepled fingers, “is that they might not keep a history, but merely a chronicle of the past events.”

    Downing nodded. “I think that’s possible.”

    Gaspard gaze slid away from Downing, settled upon Caine. “And you concur with that conclusion?”

    “Frankly, I don’t know enough to concur or demur, Mr. Gaspard.”

    “Yet it was you who brought up the possible limits of their historical perspective. Do you doubt your own assertion?”

    “Mr. Gaspard, I presented a possibility, not an assertion. As for doubts—well, we’ve spoken to a grand total of one Slaasriithi, and we have their primer.” Caine shrugged. “I know it’s human nature to want to draw conclusions, but I distrust straight line projections when we only have two data points.”

    Gaspard nodded sharply. “I quite agree. All these hypotheses follow logically from the data we do have, but we do not have very much. Well, when the time comes for me to be awakened, I will ask you to apprise me of any new information you have acquired from our Slaasriithi hosts.”

    Caine frowned. “You intend to travel in cold sleep?”

    “Of course I do.”

    “Mr. Consul,” Downing began cautiously—Caine could not tell if he was being cautious about arousing Gaspard’s temper or his own—“it was presumed that you would logically wish to spend all available time preparing for your meeting with the Slaasriithi.”

    Gaspard stared at Downing. “I am pained to point out that there is nothing logical about that presumption at all, Monsieur Downing. Here, instead, is what is logical: that this mission, too, may be cancelled. And if it is, I much prefer not having burdened my mind with yet another encyclopedia of facts that I shall never use, and having lost a further four months of my waking life needlessly committing them to memory. After all, if the Slaasriithi decide to strictly enforce their statement to Mr. Riordan, that we must ‘meet them to understand them,’ they may not even allow us access to their vessel or provide us with additional preparatory materials during our journey to their homeworld. In which case, I would have remained awake for the singularly productive pleasure of spending those months staring at the dull walls of one of our habitation modules. Of course, I insist on being awakened should we face a crisis or emergency.”

    Caine smiled. Well, you clearly don’t know much about the real practicalities of cold sleep. Not if you think being roused for an unfoldimg crisis is a good idea. Awakening cold sleepers into a crisis is like dragging a boozehound out of bed to rescue his family when he’s only two hours into sleeping off a binge. Accelerated reanims are more trouble than they’re worth.

    Sukhinin’s voice interrupted with a toneless imperative: “Ambassador Gaspard, for that is your primary title for the duration of this assignment, let us be clear on one further matter. Although you are our senior envoy and a consul of the Republic, do not presume that you may issue orders to Captain Riordan in all matters.”

    Caine’s surprised sputter did not allow him to get out the question before Gaspard did: “Captain Riordan?”

    Sukhinin stared at Gaspard, then glanced at the other faces ringing the table. “Was I unclear?”

    Downing leaned forward. “Ambassador, it is necessary that we send along a person of appropriate rank, both to advise you on the military ramifications of any agreements you might make with the Slaasriithi, and as your legation’s security and intelligence overseer. Riordan’s former rank of commander was deemed insufficient for this role. He is thereby being promoted to captain, although that is as much in recognition of his actions in the recent war as it is an administrative necessity.”

    Caine looked from Downing to Sukhinin. “Thanks. I think.”

    Sukhinin fixed him with a look that said, You poor young fellow, and held up a hand to stop Gaspard’s imminent protestations. “This is not open to debate or discussion,” Vassily declared. “Firstly, although you are a consul, and so carry plenipotentiary powers for entering into treaties with the Slaasriithi, you have been a politician, not an ambassador, up until this point in time. Nyet?”

    “I trained as a diplomat, in the most prestigious—”

    “I was at the Parthenon Dialogues with you, gospodin Gaspard, and so have heard of your credentials from the Sorbonne. From your own lips. Repeatedly. But in point of fact, while you have served on numerous international councils and commissions, you have never worked as an ambassador between two human nations, nor have you ever been on a first contact mission. Correct?”

    Gaspard had no ready response.

    Sukhinin ploughed ahead ruthlessly. “Even more marked is your lack of specialization in military and intelligence matters. In short, Captain Riordan has exactly the experience and skills to assist you in assessing the full implications of any agreements you might make with the Slaasriithi. Actually, if I had the authority to promote him further, I would: protocol implies that a flag officer should be charged with these responsibilities. The rank above captain—commodore—at least occupies a grey zone between command and flag ranks.”

    “So, Riordan may contravene my orders?”

    Downing shook his head. “No, you have different spheres of authority. In matters pertaining to the security of the delegation and its operations, he makes the final decisions, although he must solicit and consider your input. Conversely, in diplomatic activities, you hold full authority, although, once again, Captain Riordan is obligated to offer his opinion on the military implications of your decisions, and you are obligated to take those into consideration.”

    Gaspard stared at Caine. “Well then, Captain, I shall look forward to your military assessment of whatever information is conveyed to us by the Slaasriithi—or not—during my slumbers.” He rose. “I shall be preparing for relocation to the Slaasriithi shift-carrier and the commencement of my cryogenic suspension. As I understand it, you will make the final arrangements for the transfer of my staff, who are already in cold sleep. Good day.” Gaspard was out the door without a glance behind or even a nod of farewell.

    Gray Rinehart looked at Downing. “So, does Caine get combat pay while traveling with that jackass?”

    Downing sighed, smiled ruefully at Riordan. “If there was any justice in this universe, he would.”

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